Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Lab Safety Rules and Guidelines Icons. Includes a spray bottle and bubbles to show proper cleaning practices, a lab coat and safety glasses to illustrate proper PPR, as well as icons in yellow triangles showing a hand having a test tube of liquid spilled on it and a hand with a bolt of electricity to show chemical and electrical hazards. A third yellow triangle has laser beams spreading in all directions to show laser hazards.

Lab Safety Rules and Guidelines

A comprehensive round-up of common lab safety rules as well as frquently asked questions about lab safety to help you develop or update a set of policies for your own 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...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Rules, rules, rules. Labs need rules to operate well. Below, we focus on the rules specific to safety, hazards, and risks in labs. There are so many that you need to sort them by hazard types (like chemical hygiene, laser safety, or dress codes, for example). 

Guidelines are also in plentiful supply when it comes to lab safety. But what’s the difference between a rule and a guideline?  A rule is a mandatory must and a guideline is a voluntary should. Rules are often based on external regulatory requirements or internal policies. Guidelines are often in addition to the requirements and promote best practices. When it comes to lab risks, survival is usually based on those best practices.

Get training in Employee Engagement and Wellbeing and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Employee Engagement and Wellbeing Course

This comprehensive list can be used as an informative resource for your lab teams. So, review these lab safety rules and guidelines and share them with your lab folks. They just might save a life. 

General lab safety rules

The following are rules that relate to almost every laboratory and should be included in most safety policies. They cover what you should know in the event of an emergency, proper signage, lab safety equipment, safely using laboratory equipment, and basic common-sense rules. 

  1. Be sure to read all fire alarm and lab safety symbols and signs and follow the instructions in the event of an accident or emergency. 
  2. Ensure you are fully aware of your facility's/building's evacuation procedures.
  3.  Make sure you know where your lab's safety equipment—including first aid kit(s), fire extinguishers, eye wash stations, and safety showers—is located and how to properly use it. 
  4. Know emergency phone numbers to use to call for help in case of an emergency. 
  5. Lab areas containing carcinogens, radioisotopes, biohazards, and lasers should be properly marked with the appropriate warning signs. 
  6. Open flames should never be used in the laboratory unless you have permission from a qualified supervisor. 
  7. Make sure you are aware of where your lab's exits and fire alarms are located. 
  8. An area of 36" diameter must be kept clear at all times around all fire sprinkler heads. 
  9. If there is a fire drill, be sure to turn off all electrical equipment and close all containers.
  10. Always work in properly-ventilated areas. 
  11. Do not chew gum, drink, eat, or apply lip balm or cosmetics while working in the lab. 
  12. Laboratory glassware should never be used as food or beverage containers. 
  13. Each time you use glassware, be sure to check it for chips and cracks. Notify your lab supervisor of any damaged glassware so it can be properly disposed of or recycled.
  14. Never use lab equipment that you are not approved or trained by your supervisor to operate. 
  15. If an instrument or piece of equipment fails during use, or isn't operating properly, report the issue to a technician right away. Never try to repair an equipment problem on your own.
  16. If you are the last person to leave the lab, make sure to lock all the doors and turn off all ignition sources.
  17. Do not work alone in the lab.
  18. Never leave an ongoing experiment unattended. 
  19. Never lift any glassware, solutions, or other types of apparatus above eye level. 
  20. Never purposefully smell or taste chemicals. 
  21. Do not pipette by mouth. 
  22. Make sure you always follow the proper lab safety procedures for disposing of lab waste.
  23. Report all injuries, accidents, and broken equipment or glass right away, even if the incident seems small or unimportant.
  24. If you have been injured, yell out immediately and as loud as you can to ensure you get help.
  25. In the event of a chemical splashing into your eye(s) or on your skin, immediately flush the affected area(s) with running water for at least 20 minutes.
  26. If you notice any unsafe lab conditions, let your supervisor know as soon as possible.

Housekeeping safety rules

Housekeeping lab safety rules

Laboratory housekeeping rules also apply to most facilities and deal with the basic upkeep, tidiness, and maintenance of a safe laboratory. 

  1. Always keep your work area(s) tidy and clean. 
  2. Make sure that all lab safety equipment, like eyewash stations, emergency showers, fire extinguishers, and exits are always unobstructed and accessible. 
  3. Only materials you require for your work should be kept in your work area. Everything else should be stored safely out of the way.
  4. Only lightweight items should be stored on top of cabinets; heavier items should always be kept at waist height to avoid bending and lifting.
  5. Solids should always be kept out of the laboratory sink. 
  6. Any equipment that requires air flow or ventilation to prevent overheating should always be kept clear. 

Dress code safety rules 

Dresscode lab safety rules

As you’d expect, laboratory dress codes set a clear policy for the clothing employees should avoid wearing to prevent accidents or injuries in the lab. For example, skirts and shorts might be nice for enjoying the warm weather outside, but quickly become a liability in the lab where skin can be exposed to heat or dangerous chemicals. 

  1. Always tie back hair that is chin-length or longer and as needed.
  2. Make sure that loose clothing or dangling jewelry is removed, or avoid wearing it in the first place. 
  3. Never wear sandals or other open-toed shoes in the lab. Footwear must always cover the foot completely. 
  4. Never wear shorts or skirts in the lab.
  5. When working with Bunsen burners, lighted splints, matches, etc., acrylic nails are not allowed.

Personal protection safety rules

Personal protection lab safety rules

Unlike laboratory dress code policies, rules for personal protection cover what employees must be wearing in the lab to protect themselves from various lab hazards, as well as basic hygiene rules to follow to avoid any sort of contamination.

  1. When working with equipment, hazardous materials, glassware, heat, and/or chemicals, always wear  safety glasses or goggles, and additionally use a face shield as needed.
  2. When handling any toxic or hazardous agent, always wear the appropriate gloves that resist the specific chemicals you’re working with.
  3. When performing laboratory experiments, you must always wear a lab coat.
  4. Before leaving the lab or eating, always wash your hands.
  5. After performing an experiment, you should always wash your hands with soap and water. 
  6. When using lab equipment and chemicals, be sure to keep your hands away from your body, mouth, eyes, face, and items you’ll handle after removing your gloves (e.g., your phone, laptop).

Chemical safety rules

Chemical lab safety rules

Since almost every lab uses chemicals of some sort, chemical lab safety rules are a must. Following these policies helps employees avoid spills and other accidents, as well as damage to the environment outside of the lab. These rules also set a clear procedure for employees to follow in the event that a spill does occur to ensure it is cleaned up properly and injuries are avoided. 

  1. Every chemical should be treated as though it were dangerous.
  2. Do not allow any solvent to come into contact with your skin. 
  3. All chemicals should always be clearly labeled with the name of the substance, its concentration, the date it was received, and the name of the person responsible for it.
  4. Before removing any of the contents from a chemical bottle, read the label twice.
  5. Never take more chemicals from a bottle than you need for your work. 
  6. Do not put unused chemicals back into their original container. 
  7. Chemicals or other materials should never be taken out of the laboratory. 
  8. Chemicals should never be mixed in sink drains. 
  9. Flammable and volatile chemicals should only be used in a fume hood. 
  10. If a chemical spill occurs, clean it up right away.
  11. Ensure that all chemical waste is disposed of properly. 

Chemistry lab safety rules

As chemistry labs are one of the most common types, these basic chemistry lab safety rules are relevant to many scientists, dealing with the safe performance of common activities and tasks in the average chemistry lab: 

  1. Before you start an experiment, make sure you are fully aware of the hazards of the materials you'll be using.  
  2. When refluxing, distilling, or transferring volatile liquids, always exercise extreme caution.  
  3. Use smaller amounts and containers as able. When transferring a solvent, ensure proper bonding and grounding. Make sure that containers are always labeled appropriately.  
  4. Never pour chemicals that have been used back into the stock container.   
  5. Never tap flasks that are under vacuum.   
  6. Chemicals should never be mixed, measured, or heated in front of your face.  
  7. Water should not be poured into concentrated acid. Instead, pour acid slowly into water while stirring constantly. In many cases, mixing acid with water is exothermic. Remember the saying, “Add acid to water, just like you oughta.” 

Electrical safety rules

Electrical lab safety rules

Like almost every other workplace, laboratories contain electronic equipment. Electrical lab safety rules help prevent the misuse of electronic instruments, electric shocks, and other injuries, and ensure that any damaged equipment, cords, or plugs are reported to the appropriate authorities so they can be repaired or replaced. 

  1. Before using any high voltage equipment (voltages above 50Vrms ac and 50V dc) or high amperage current, make sure you get permission from your lab supervisor. 
  2. High voltage equipment should never be changed or modified in any way. 
  3. Always turn off a high voltage power supply when you are attaching it.
  4. Use only one hand if you need to adjust any high voltage equipment.  It's safest to place your other hand either behind your back or in a pocket.
  5. Make sure all electrical panels are unobstructed and easily accessible. 
  6. Whenever you can, avoid using extension cords.

Laser safety rules

Laser lab safety rules

Perhaps not as common as some of the other lab safety rules listed here, many laboratories do use lasers and it’s important to follow some key rules of thumb to prevent injuries. In particular, lab safety accidents due to reflection are something that many employees may not think about. A clear set of lab safety rules for the use of lasers is essential to ensure that everyone is aware of all hazards and that the appropriate personal protective equipment is worn at all times. 

  1. Even if you are certain that a laser beam is "eye" safe or low power, you should never look into it.
  2. Always wear the appropriate goggles in areas of the lab where lasers are present. The most common laser injuries are those caused by scattered laser light reflecting either off the shiny surface of optical tables, the sides of mirrors, or off of mountings. Use laser curtains and signs. Goggles rated for that laser and frequency will help you avoid damage from such scattered light.
  3. You should never keep your head at the same level as the laser beam.
  4. Always keep the laser beam at or below chest level. 
  5. Laser beams should never be allowed to spread into the lab. Beam stops should always be used to intercept laser beams.
  6. Do not walk through laser beams.

Lab safety: Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the most important lab safety rule?

A: The most important lab safety rule is “Always perform a risk assessment”—it trumps all other science safety rules. Risk assessing is the key to all aspects of lab rules and safety. If you always assess risk, you should be successful in minimizing or even eliminating any bad or unexpected outcomes. 

Q: What PPE is needed in the laboratory?

A: PPE in science labs should always include safety glasses or goggles, chemical-resistant gloves, and a lab coat. Other PPE may be needed depending on the hazards and risks in the lab. With PPE, you also need proper lab safety attire—covered from the neck down—no bare arms, legs, or toes.

Q: What is the first step in lab safety?

A: The first step in lab safety is to recognize and respect the hazards and risks. Once you accept the realities of the safety issues, the rest should come naturally. You start to look at the chemicals, equipment, processes, experiments, and controls in a new and more productive way. Open your eyes, then open your mind. 

Q: Who is responsible for lab safety?

A: You are, the PI or teacher is, your classmates or other researchers are, EHS is, risk management is, institutional or organizational leadership is, and I am.  We all are. It must be a group ethos, part of a true culture of lab safety, where we all care about each other’s safety and openly discuss risk. Without positive group norms and behaviors, we are lost, and risk is ever-present. 

Q: What are the legal aspects for consideration when it comes to lab safety?

A: In the US, the standard is “do what a reasonable and prudent person would do to not cause harm.” That is the standard language for negligence, and no one wants to be negligent and cause harm. It’s purposefully an open-ended, performance-based standard of care. As part of this, we have a “duty to warn”—thus the need for signs, labels, training, and effective risk communication.