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Ten Tips for Handling Hazardous Chemicals in a Lab

While there are many different chemical hazards and risks, there are some best practices that apply to them all

Steve Gonzales

Steve Gonzales is CEO of Technical Safety Services, which provides testing, certification and calibration of equipment and controlled environment crucial to the success of the biopharma, medical device, academic research,...

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Working with hazardous chemicals is a necessary part of laboratory work in a variety of industries. With this type of work, however, there are many dangers involved. Learn more about the potential risks of handling chemicals and some proper handling methods and safety tips.

Types of hazardous materials in a lab

Before examining our list of safety tips for hazardous material handling in laboratory settings, it is important to understand the potential types of materials that lab personnel may encounter and the risks that these chemicals entail. 

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Potential hazardous materials in the lab can include but are not limited to:

  • Carcinogens
  • Acids
  • Toxins
  • Irritants
  • Nitrates
  • Nitrites
  • Heavy metals
  • Corrosives
  • Sensitizers
  • Sulfides
  • Cyanides
  • Neurotoxins

Potential risks of exposure to these materials include:

  • Acute (short-term) illness
  • Chronic (long-term) illness
  • Cancer
  • Respiratory issues
  • Skin irritation
  • Internal irritation

In addition to these potential health issues, hazardous materials may also present corrosion, flammability, or explosion risks, which can cause severe injuries to lab personnel.

Tips for handling hazardous materials in the laboratory

Assign a chemical hygiene officer—To ensure a proper hazardous chemical handling strategy, it is important to make it clear who is responsible and accountable for creation of, and adherence to, the plan. In a lab setting, all too often responsibility is dispersed on an ad hoc basis, making it difficult to form a comprehensive plan. The chemical hygiene officer should be responsible for facilitating the creation of a hygiene plan (with the input of other managers and hands-on personnel) and ensuring that the plan is understood and adhered to by employees.

Create a chemical hygiene plan—With the chemical hygiene officer facilitating, it is critical for the laboratory to have a chemical hygiene plan on hand. The hygiene officer does not have to be solely responsible for creating the plan. It’s important to draw on the expertise and input of other managers as well as those who are tasked with handling chemicals on a day-to-day basis so that best practices and safety measures are incorporated into the plan.

Ensure that all employees are trained on the chemical hygiene plan—Once the chemical hygiene plan has been developed, it is crucial that all employees are aware of the plan and that they receive comprehensive training to understand its tenets and methods. The plan is only as good as the level of employee knowledge and adherence to it, so it is recommended to spend a material amount of time in making sure employees thoroughly understand the plan. Effective training methods include workshops, hands-on training, and knowledge testing.

Keep training current—A single training or series is rarely enough to maintain the level of employee knowledge necessary to ensure ongoing safety and adherence to the plan, especially as recommended handling methods evolve and personnel turnover occurs. Retraining should occur at least on an annual basis and should also be included as part of employee onboarding.

Ensure proper use of PPE—Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a critical component of proper hazardous material handling. Employees should be well trained with the PPE required for a given application, including how to don and remove PPE, as well as proper guidelines for material handling while wearing PPE.

Keep a real-time inventory of materials in use—Each chemical in a lab facility has different properties, characteristics, and risks. As part of the chemical hygiene plan, all personnel should be aware of which materials are in use and which methods to follow while handling them. Any employee in the lab should be aware of which materials are currently in that setting, whether they are directly using them or not.

Make sure documentation is readily available—Material safety information should be comprehensively documented, including manufacturer documentation as well as facility-specific procedures. Documentation of these procedures should be on hand and readily available for any employee who wishes to consult it.

Keep accurate and consistent records—Personnel should be trained to keep consistent, thorough, and accurate records of materials in use, applications in which they are used, and any potential safety incidents. This record-keeping process serves as another level of documentation, ensuring full transparency and awareness of materials used in the facility and any safety issues that may have occurred—and how they were remedied.

Ensure proper labeling of materials and containers—Proper material labeling is a key component of safe handling, serving as one of the primary ways that personnel know which chemicals they are handling and which procedures to follow. Labeling should be instilled as a baseline requirement for chemical inventory management. 

Install the proper infrastructure—Proper venting, circulation equipment, filtration, cleanroom infrastructure and alarms are key requirements for ensuring the safety of lab personnel when handling hazardous chemicals. Infrastructure investment and maintenance should be high priorities, and equipment should be regularly checked and repaired as needed.

These tips are your first steps towards keeping a safe, effective laboratory environment when potentially hazardous chemicals are in use. It is critical to follow these steps—and more—to ensure the safety of your personnel and end users, as well as efficient, accurate lab operations.