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New Lab Safety Rules for Protecting Workers

The question of permitting lab employees to work alone with dangerous materials and equipment has raised serious questions of whether prohibiting the practice would impede academic freedom

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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We know it happens too frequently—and perhaps it’s more common in laboratories of institutions of higher education. But, we would be willing to bet that you probably have done it at some point in your career. We are referring to working alone in the laboratory.

We have seen the potential disastrous consequences in recent horrific accidents. The tragic fatality of the UCLA student who was severely burned after a spill of a pyrophoric material resulting from a lack of safety training and oversight that led to fines for the university and the principal investigator garnered the most media attention in this arena. A Yale undergraduate was fatally injured while working alone late at night in a chemistry lab machine shop when her hair became entangled in a lathe. A Texas A&M-Qatar petroleum engineering student who died from injuries suffered in an explosion, the causes of which are still under investigation, is another unnecessary tragic statistic of working alone. There have been far too many others.

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Related Article: Safer Science

The issue of permitting lab employees to work alone in laboratories with dangerous materials and equipment has raised serious questions of whether working alone should be prohibited, and if so, whether this would impede and throttle the academic freedom expected in these environments. In this month’s cover story, we take a look at the latest guidelines developed and proposed by various agencies and institutions and some new, innovative technologies emerging that support the safety of working alone.

Promote a culture of safety

Not surprisingly, the sudden increase of incidents has prompted a task force consisting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the Association of Public and Land- Grant Universities (APLU), the US Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), and the National Academies to join in calling for improvements in the safety culture in academic laboratories. “Given the recent number of serious academic lab accidents, the task force’s report should serve as a critical clarion call to improve lab safety,” says ACS executive director and CEO Thomas Connelly Jr., PhD. “Ensuring labs have a strong culture of safety is paramount to doing chemistry.”1

Related Article: Safe Enough?

The task force has developed recommendations for implementing and sustaining a safety culture in academia (and, in our opinion, all laboratories) distilled from the best reports on the subject. These recommendations have been drawn primarily from four foundation reports: Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research (National Research Council, 2014); Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions (ACS, 2012); Creating a Safety Culture (OSHA, 1989); and Texas Tech Laboratory Explosion Case Study (CSB, 2010).2 The recommendations fall into four main categories: institutional resources; hazard identification and analysis; training and learning; and continuous improvement. To help speed things up, we have concisely recapped them here for you while making them more generalized for our nonacademic partners.

Institutional policy

  • Top-level management, leaders, CEOs, presidents, etc., must prioritize their commitment to improving the culture of safety.
  • Designate and build leadership teams/committees to assist implementation and provide feedback to all stakeholders.
  • Leadership teams should work to develop a shared vision as well as effective safety policies and management systems, and identify the resources necessary for implementing and sustaining programs.
  • Embed safety communication throughout the organization to create a trusting and safe culture that includes open dialogue so that employees are reporting and learning from near-misses.
  • Develop a risk-assessment process for all activities conducted in the lab.
  • Coordinate with and develop effective working relationships with all first responders.

Hazard identification and analysis

  • Develop and implement routine hazard analyses and use them at every opportunity.
  • Develop and implement an incident reporting process, including near-misses, to learn from them.

Training and learning

  • Develop and provide laboratory safety training and education for all employees and stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, department heads, and management.
  • Ensure emphasis on safe practices above all else.

Continuous improvement institution

  • Conduct self-assessments and provide feedback on progress toward creating a safer culture.
  • Develop a continuous improvement system that provides reassessment as well as ongoing training and learning opportunities.
  • Develop and implement a system of accountability, including peer-to-peer oversight.
  • Promote partnerships (academic/ industry/government) that allow all laboratory personnel to learn from strong, well-developed safety cultures in laboratories.

Although we have carefully distilled the recommendations for developing and implementing a safety culture for you, we strongly encourage you to visit the APLU website (reference #2), as it contains a wealth of information, including clickable links for each recommendation that provide detailed implementation strategies, video examples of the importance of safety, examples of successful programs and campaigns, communication resources, and comparisons with other key resources.

Solving the working alone dilemma

We certainly want to start from a strong culture of safety, but additional actions are necessary to tackle and defeat the dangers of working alone, especially in laboratories with highly hazardous materials, equipment, and/or processes. A functional definition of “working alone” is only one person in a lab or contiguous space who is working with harmful materials, risky procedures, or hazardous equipment. If you are going to entertain and allow working solo, we recommend beginning with robust and well-thought-out safety policies, which the wonderful Internet provides in abundance. Rule #1: If at all possible, avoid working alone in a laboratory. If solo work is unavoidable, work during prime or peak hours or make sure someone is working nearby. Try enlisting a partner to work with you. Do everything you can to prevent working alone.

We know sometimes this is just not going to happen because things need to get done. Perhaps the process or procedure is simple or will take only a short time. We need a means to make working alone as safe as possible. Start by focusing on a risk assessment. Do not skimp on this step. Make sure all possible hazards and scenarios are evaluated and that all needed safety equipment and devices are provided and accessible.

The next step should be to ensure the adequacy of safety training, competency regarding safety, and documentation that these have been demonstrated. This step should include showing proper use of all equipment and devices identified in step one above. Examples include the basic fume hood, the location and operation of eye wash and safety shower stations, etc. Personal protective equipment is another important aspect that should be covered here and never overlooked.

Related Article: Provide Fire Extinguishers, Safety Showers, and Eye Wash Fountains

One last step in a comprehensive solo work policy should address supervision and safety management. If working alone in a laboratory is necessary, require the principal investigator to complete, sign, and submit to the safety manager/ EH&S office a “Permission to Work Alone” form or other document that shows the preceding steps have been completed prior to the work being performed. The permission document should state that careful consideration was given to the potential hazards of the materials, procedural hazards present in the laboratory, and hazards of the equipment being used. Advance planning should be made in these cases to address emergency response procedures and should include consideration of when to inform outside parties of the employee’s work plan and schedule. Security personnel may be instructed to provide periodic checks on those working alone, especially after normal business hours.

Technological advances can assist

Assuming there are going to be times when working solo will be necessary and that we have committed to preparing and using a stout working alone policy as outlined above, we still want to use every advantage to ensure the safety of our workers in these situations. There have been advances in safety equipment that help us with these challenges. The Safety Guys do not endorse any specific products, but we did want to mention a couple of recent ones that may help when faced with having to work solo.

The first of these is a new fabric designated FR/CP for flame-resistance and chemical protection that has been developed for use in laboratory safety coats. The Workrite® FR/ CP™ Lab Coat combines the FR properties of Nomex® IIIA fabric with Westex® Shield- TEC™, a proprietary chemical-splash protective technology.3 This new fabric provides protection against short-duration thermal incidents as well as emergency exposure to flame, while resisting the penetration and wicking of inadvertent liquid chemical splashes. Prior to the FR/CP innovation, protection against these hazards required at least two separate safety garments, often resulting in discomfort, inconvenience, and potential wearer negligence.

Related Article: Protection Perfection

Another new product recently introduced is a twoway signaling, man-down alarm. The high-performance, two-way radio signaling device is intrinsically safe, meets FCC requirements, and provides telemetry accountability protection via encrypted signals for reliable and secure operation.4 Although aimed at the firefighter and first responder market, the Safety Guys believe these devices would find a place in ensuring safety when working alone, especially where hazardous materials, procedures, or equipment are in use.

Working alone presents many potential hazards, and if approached with a cavalier attitude, can quickly lead to disastrous consequences. If you are faced with permitting these activities in your facility, we encourage you to follow our recommendations presented here: develop a strong culture of safety, have specific policies in place for solo work and ensure they are followed, and explore new technologies to gain every available advantage. Stay safe.


1. Laboratory safety task force calls for universities to renew research safety commitment, American Chemical Society Press Release, April 13, 2016. Washington, D.C.

2. Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture, Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities. Washington, D.C. 2016. 

3. Lab Safety Procedures Every Lab Should Follow. Workrite. Oxnard, CA. 2016 

4. TPASS 3 Evacuate, Grace Industries, Inc. Fredonia, PA. 2016.