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Preventing Contamination in Your Lab

Two safety experts share tips for minimizing the risk of contaminants leaving the lab

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a...

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Patrick A. Ryan, CIH, CSP, CHMM

Patrick A. Ryan is the hazardous materials manager at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT. His responsibilities include oversight of hazardous waste on campus and at related offsite locations. He...

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The potential for contamination in a laboratory is a serious risk. Whether it’s research, academic, production, clinical, testing, or other lab, contamination is a threat. Even environmental labs that test samples from sites with contamination can be vexed by contamination of their samples. This Q&A with safety expert Patrick A. Ryan and Lab Manager’s senior safety editor Jonathan Klane will help you prevent contamination in your lab. 

Q: What are the risks of lab contamination? 

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A: There are several risks of contamination—the first risk is to people. Contamination can cause injuries from sharps or reactive energetic compounds. Mineral dusts or radioactive substances can create exposure scenarios. And a variety of toxins (e.g., neurotoxic, reproductive, or endocrine disruptors) can lead to illnesses. 

Contaminated lab equipment is another vexing problem. If the equipment is contaminated it's no longer usable, and it may report inaccurate results. We can't use a gas chromatograph with solvent residue on or in it, especially if it’s undetected.

There are a variety of potential losses. Reputational loss is the ultimate one as it affects the others. An agency inquiry, inspection, citation, or fine are all possible. The lab could end up in the news or in court. At the very least, they'll have to explain what happened to regulators, the media, customers, and the public.

Q: What's the best starting point in preventing, avoiding, or reducing contamination?

A: You've got to recognize the threat: your first need is to diffuse it. To do so the lab needs to have a strong pre-fence, as opposed to solely defensive measures. The first step will be to identify potential sources of contamination and from there, prevent it. This requires a proactive approach, not just a reactive one. Awareness and avoidance are the first steps in this approach. 

Build it into your lab’s architecture, both the literal or physical construct and figurative processes, habits, and rituals. To do so one should have a structured system. It will reduce costs and be less expensive in the long run. The costs of an accident or incident are many. There are both hard costs (e.g., decontamination, lost income) and soft costs (e.g., reputation, staff turnover) which vary by contamination type and extent of the problem.

Q: What type of overarching principles do you find the most effective?

A: There are three necessary elements:

  1. You need to develop a deep understanding of the issues
  2. It's important to install control systems in your lab
  3. And wherever possible, simplify your response, uncomplicate it!

If you can do these well, you can avoid contaminating your lab or potentially the environment. Without all three, lab contamination is a greater risk.

Q: How does a lab develop a deep understanding of contamination?

A: You need to have what is called a good ground game. This is the ability for your team to use critical reasoning skills without the aid of artificial technology that may lead them astray. A slang term for this is “buttonology,” i.e., looking everything up on one's phone without first trying to think and reason what is going on. Sadly, we have less chemistry understanding across lab personnel, and consequently less hazmat conceptual knowledge.

Q: Any key takeaways that make for a good ground game?

A: First and foremost are critical reasoning skills. In addition, the most effective teams have a high degree of psychological safety. They can speak up, make suggestions, even seemingly foolish ones, and know that they won't be judged, criticized, or shot down. The four levels of knowledge espoused by [behavioral psychologist] E. Scott Geller are also helpful:

  1. Unconsciously incompetent: I don't know what I don't know
  2. Consciously incompetent: I realized my gaps (I know what I don't know)
  3. Consciously competent: I know what I know (mostly when I think about it)
  4. Unconsciously competent: I'm naturally aware of and engage in what I know (without having to think about it)

We need confidence, but not arrogance. And it's extremely important to be aware of our own cognitive biases.

Q8: What sorts of control systems help the most to avoid contamination? Any key components?

A: Yes, there are 4 aspects:

  1. Programs, processes, and systems. These need to occur within a diversity of labs. They should be scalable, modular, and site specific. A best practice is always to create one aligned with your business processes.
  2. Pre-acceptance material screening. This is at the heart of a successful process. The first step is testing for contamination. One aspect is to check its thermal conditions. Is it warmer or cooler than it should be? A line-of-sight digital infrared thermometer can be used for this. We should always be scanning for threats. Staff need to know that they have the ability and authorization to “push the stop button”. Can they? Do they know that? Ensure that it is clear and practiced by using drills and mock exercises.
  3. Creating and maintaining. It's critical to protect the “architecture” of the lab. What are its boundaries, barricades, and utilities? Also, what are the procedures and practices that are already in place? If there are signs of radiation contamination, that will take it in a different direction, so, it should be first. Often mercury is next because it requires a very different type of response since mercury easily tracks everywhere.
  4. Coolers and boxes. Here's where there are many moving parts, but we can keep it simple and uncomplicated. Maintain the sample’s integrity, add nothing nor alter it. Simple hazmat screening should be radiation first, explosives next (if warranted or otherwise indicated/necessary), corrosives, then VOCs (volatile organic compounds). This is because corrosive substances can poison or otherwise deactivate or interfere with VOC/photoionization detection (PID) meter sensors. If this happens, your VOC/PID meter is rendered useless.

Q: What is key to simplifying a response?

A: First is always protecting the lab. This includes people, assets, and reputation. Always maximize safety. Minimize waste disposal needs and ensure all waste disposal is EPA-compliant and traceable. This requires knowing your generator status. Are you EPA-regulated or are you non-regulated? Maximize your risk management approach to minimize your risks.

Q: Any final thoughts or advice?

A: Ultimately, it's about improving the lab’s processes.

  • Proactively reduce risks
  • Increase organizational resilience
  • Safety is the presence of hazard controls
  • Be more functional and keep it unadulterated
  • Whatever is in the cooler or box should stay in the cooler or box
  • Continuity, sustainability, and survival are obvious key components
  • Bad PR, bad business, and environmental crimes are all very real threats<em-dash>none are theoretical or hypothetical

Implement these key elements and best practices to win the battle with contamination reduction.

Patrick A. Ryan is the hazardous materials manager at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT. His responsibilities include oversight of hazardous waste on campus and at related offsite locations. He has worked at MSU for over 16 years and has actively worked with occupational safety and hazmat for 30 years. He has extensive experience with large-scale chemical lab cleanouts and hazardous materials and waste management. He is a certified hazardous materials manager (CHMM), certified safety professional (CSP), and certified industrial hygienist (CIH). He is an active technical presenter with CUHMMC, was part of the ANSI/ASSP Z10 committee from 2021 to 2024, and is a current member of the Institute for Hazardous Materials Management (IHMM) textbook committee and CHMM exam committee. He has a strong passion for continuous learning and improvement.

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a consultant, trainer, professor, embedded safety director for two colleges of engineering, and now writing for Lab Manager. He is a PhD candidate in human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University, where he studies our risk perceptions and the effects of storytelling. He can be reached at