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Recognizing Hazards in Your Lab

A formal job safety analysis is your first and best line of defense.

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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During recent years, too many devastating incidents in laboratories have occurred. The most severe have led to fatalities, serious injuries, and sobering case studies published by the Chemical Safety Board.1 And, the sheer number of incidents has even prompted an edifying report on laboratory safety culture by the American Chemical Society. 2 We should not be shy about pointing these incidents out and discussing them. However, now it is time to take it to the next level. We need to do better.

Should you or your coworkers work in environments where going home at the end of the day is at risk? Of course not! One of the best ways to ensure a safe workplace is a successful safety and health program that includes job hazard analysis (JHA) or job safety analysis (JSA). Don't be intimidated by these technical terms. They simply describe a formal process for figuring out the potential risks associated with a particular job and devising ways to control or eliminate them before an exposure, injury, or accident occurs. The JHA method identifies the right controls for the hazards presented by a task. The JHA looks at each step or individual procedure and evaluates the potential hazards involved. JHA is like occupational detective work. You must solve the mystery of what can go wrong, how it might happen, what would result if it happened, how likely it is to occur, and, most importantly, how we can prevent it from happening.

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One other major benefit of performing JHA is that you will most likely develop the steps necessary to complete your standard operating procedure (SOP), which is a major piece of your chemical hygiene plan required by the OSHA lab standard. 3 Conversely, if you already have your SOP, you probably have 90 percent of your JHA completed. It's a win-win.

When should I do a JHA?

You can perform a job hazard analysis for any job, even in research lab settings, whether the procedure is routine or special. Developing a hierarchy of which jobs to evaluate first may seem overwhelming. One approach recommended by OSHA is to identify jobs with workers' compensation claims or employee complaints.4 Obviously, jobs with the highest rates of disabling injuries and illnesses should rank first in the process. Prioritize jobs that had close calls or near misses or simple human errors that could lead to serious injury. Then, target jobs that are new or that had recent changes made. Ideally, perform a JHA as each job is being developed to address anticipated hazards, then review and amend it once the job is functional. Aim to eventually conduct a job hazard analysis for all jobs in the workplace.

Employee involvement

No one knows more about how jobs are actually performed than the employees doing them. They have a unique understanding of each job, and this is key to finding hazards. If possible, add to the discussion the experience of other workers who have performed the same job in the past. Solicit information from your employees on suspect hazards identified in their current work or surroundings. Sometimes employee reluctance results from a belief that the analysis is an opportunity for criticism of their performance, and this may hinder participation. It is important to convey that it is the job itself being reviewed and not the employee. Involve the workers in all phases of the JHA, from review of job steps to discussion of potential hazards to development of solutions. If, through discussion, hazards are identified that present an immediate threat, take prompt action to protect the employee. Likewise, if problems are identified that are easily and quickly fixed, do so; do not wait to complete the hazard analysis before acting.

Begin the JHA with a general overview

Before actually beginning the job hazard analysis, size up the general conditions. In a wet lab area, for example, there are some general observations you might make:

  • Are there materials on the floor that could trip a worker?
  • Is lighting adequate?
  • Are extension cords in use? GFCIs? Are there other electrical concerns?
  • Where are the chemicals stored? Are they labeled?
  • Are carts and other equipment in need of repair?
  • Is it very loud? Is it very hot?
  • Are emergency exits or safety showers blocked by materials, equipment, or carts?
  • Are floor drains available?
  • Are contamination control procedures being followed?
  • Is there evidence of eating or drinking in this area?
  • Are employees wearing appropriate personal protective equipment for their jobs?Are workers bending and twisting at the waist?

Outline the steps or tasks

Most work activities or lab procedures can be broken down into specific tasks or steps. Watch the job process and list each step as the worker completes it. Take enough time to get a feel for the work and ensure that you are observing representative actions. (Sometimes, workers posture when first observed and work the way they think you think they should.) Record enough information to describe each job action, but do not get too detailed. Photos and videos can both help with subsequent discussion and analysis. Later, go over the job steps with the employee to make sure you have not missed something important. There are many examples of job hazard analysis forms available on the web. Use of a form during these exercises helps keep the analysis organized and serves as a good documentation tool.

Identifying hazards

After you have recorded the job steps, examine each step to determine the hazards that exist or might occur. When describing hazards, it helps to identify:

  • Where it is happening (location, environment)
  • Whom or what it is happening to (who or what is exposed)
  • What is the trigger for the hazard
  • What would occur if the hazard happens (consequences)
  • What are other contributing or interrelated factors

Usually there are a string of factors that come into play to result in a hazard. For example, consider basic use of solvents in the lab:

Pouring solvents in the chemical fume hood (location) produces vapors; the lab technician (exposed individual) is working within the hood with hot plate turned on (trigger). The technician spills some of the solvent, resulting in flash and burns (consequences). Contributing factors: lack of focus when handling hazardous material (was training followed?), hot plate not turned off when pouring solvents, hood not set up properly to scavenge vapors.

In more complex situations, you may have to repeat the job observation a number of times before all hazards have been identified.

Recommending safe procedures and protection

After you have listed all potential hazards, review them with the employee performing the job. Determine whether performing the job in another way might eliminate the hazards. You might make physical changes to the environment, alter the procedure, or use additional or different safety equipment. For example, minimize the hazard by marking the floor with a line to designate areas that must be kept clear or to maintain separation.

Don't make general statements about the procedure such as "work carefully" or "safety first." Be as specific as you can in your recommendations. The job hazard analysis can provide a good foundation for employee safety training. Using the JHA, you can alert employees to identified hazards and the appropriate controls to use.

Revising the job hazard analysis

A job hazard analysis can do much to reduce accidents and injuries in the workplace, but it is effective only if it is reviewed and updated routinely. Even if no changes have been made in a job, another review might detect hazards that were missed in an earlier analysis. If an illness or injury occurs on a specific job, review the job hazard analysis immediately to determine whether changes are needed in the job procedure. In addition, if a close call or near miss results from an employee's failure to follow job procedures, discuss this incident with all employees performing the job. Anytime there is revision, provide retraining to all employees affected by the changes.

When to hire a professional

When a job involves many different and complex processes, if the outcome of an accident is potentially severe, or when working under the threat of regulatory or legal scrutiny, hiring a professional is appropriate and recommended. Consulting firms that use safety and health professionals such as Certified Industrial Hygienists or Certified Safety Professionals, services from your insurance carrier, or the OSHA consultation services program sponsored by the federal and state governments are possible sources of help. Regardless of who provides outside expert advice, it is important that you and your employees remain in the process of identifying and correcting hazards. Your employees work the job every day and are most likely to encounter new problems or proposed controls that may not work.


The JHA is a proven and worthwhile tool in the quest to prevent job-related injuries and illnesses in the workplace. We often use it on an informal basis when performing health and safety evaluations or audits. Performing formal JHAs provides a framework to address all the hazards associated with a job and helps prevent partial corrections from being accepted as complete solutions. A quick search on the web provides many examples of JHA forms that, with modification, should meet your particular preferences.


1. Completed Investigations, US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Washington, DC, 2017. 

2. Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions, Committee on Chemical Safety, American Chemical Society. Washington, DC, 2012. 

3. Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, US Department of Labor, Washington, DC, 2012. 

4. Job Hazard Analysis, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, US Department of Labor, Washington, DC, 2002.