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Watch Your Step!

Research facilities, especially laboratories, are challenging places to work safely. This month, the Safety Guys alert you to potentially significant physical hazards present in the workplace.

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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Stay aware of your surroundings to avoid physical hazards

What do we mean when we say “physical hazards?” Commonly, they include conditions and situations that might lead to slips, trips, and falls. But if you are handling animals, they also cover the potential for bites, scratches and contact injuries. However, in addition to these common issues we want you to start thinking about the not-so-obvious hazards such as electrical safety hazards and high noise areas.

Let’s start with the easy stuff

Many injuries arise from poor housekeeping. Slips, trips, and falls are too common and easily avoided. Begin with organizing the storage areas, and avoid creating hazards with your material storage. Stack and interlock bags, containers and boxes that are stored in tiers; limit the height so that the tiers are stable, and secure against tipping, sliding or collapse. Minimize chaotic accumulation of materials that could cause tripping, hinder access, or present a fire risk.

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Next, perform a general facility inspection, concentrating on walking/working surfaces, lighting and egress pathways. It is imperative that emergency exit routes remain clear and unobstructed at all times. Make sure floors are smooth and free of cracks or lips that could catch or trip. Inspect storage racks, hand trucks, and other equipment to ensure good mechanical condition. Pay special attention to the casters. Note the lighting conditions, and measure illumination in those areas that seem dim. Compare results with those recommended by IES and ANSI.1 Ensure that all lights within seven feet of the floor are protected against accidental breakage. Slip plastic protective tubes over florescent bulbs prior to mounting, or install screens onto the fixtures. Finally, note areas of special lighting requirements, and train employees to allow for eye adjustment before working in those areas.

You might be in for a shock

While performing your facility inspection, keep an eye out for electrical hazards. Frequently found problems include improper use of extension cords or cords with cut, torn or frayed insulation, exposed wiring, missing grounding plugs, open electrical panels and overloaded circuits. Less obvious hazards are present on electrophoresis equipment, biosafety cabinets and wet vacuum systems. Pay very close attention to wet areas: Equip all electrical power outlets in wet locations with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) to prevent accidental electrocutions. GFCIs are designed to “trip” and break the circuit when a small amount of current begins flowing to ground. Wet locations include outlets within six feet of a sink, faucet or other water source, and outlets located outdoors or in areas that get washed down routinely. Specific GFCI outlets can be used individually, or GFCI may be installed in the electrical panel to protect entire circuits.

Improper use of flexible extension cords is one of the most common electrical hazards. Extension cords should never substitute for permanent wiring. Check the insulation and make sure it is in good condition and that it inserts into the plug ends. Never repair cracks, breaks, cuts, or tears with tape. Either discard the extension cord or shorten it by installing a new plug end. Take care not to run extension cords through doors or windows, where they can be pinched or cut. Use only grounded equipment and tools, and never remove the grounding pin from the plug end. Do not hook multiple extension cords together to reach your work; just get the right length cord for the job.

Another thing to check is the electrical panel. Ensure a three-foot clear space is kept in front of these at all times. Also, clearly label each circuit breaker. Finally, use of hanging lights or electrical outlets is becoming widespread and can help keep cords off floors and out of the way. Check electrical pendants for proper strain relief, type of box and guarding, if needed. In a recently visited facility there was an accident from an unguarded hanging outlet shorting out when it was “caught” by a forklift passing under it. Fortunately, the forklift driver was not electrocuted.

Can you hear me now?

Many areas within research facilities are inherently noisy. Excessive noise can result from the equipment in use, such as sonicators, high-pressure air cleaning equipment and wet vacuum systems. Exposure to loud noise can result in loss of hearing. Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent and cannot be treated medically. This type of hearing loss is usually noticed by a reduced response to frequencies above 2,000 hertz (Hz). Since normal human speech is in the 2,000Hz to 4,000Hz range, noise-induced hearing loss is debilitating at work and in daily life.

OSHA limits employee noise exposure to 90 decibels (dB) averaged over an eight-hour work shift measured on the A-scale and slow response with a standard sound level meter.2 If noise levels exceed 85dB, then the employer must implement a hearing conservation program (HCP) for exposed employees. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists recommends a more conservative threshold of 85dB as an eight-hour timeweighted average.3 Monitoring, annual audiometric testing, hearing protection, training and record keeping are required under the HCP.

A quick and useful method of checking areas for excessive noise is the “conversation test.” Standing one to three feet from another person, attempt a normal conversation in the noisy area. If conversation is difficult or impossible, then the noise might be excessive. Have the areas evaluated by a qualified person knowledgeable in occupational noise, measuring techniques, data analysis, and control alternatives.

Control of excessive noise falls into three categories: engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment. Under the OSHA standard, engineering controls are used first to control the hazard. This can include purchase of newer, quieter equipment, shielding or installation of acoustical sound-deadening treatments on walls and ceilings. Administrative controls entail limiting the time an employee spends in the noise hazard area or assigning more than one employee to split the time needed to complete the task. The last line of defense for preventing excessive noise exposure is personal protective equipment such as earplugs or ear muffs.

We’re just getting warmed up

In this issue, we have touched on a few physical hazards that you can look into and make an immediate impact on your facility’s safety. In coming issues we will delve into additional ones, such as mechanical equipment hazards and ergonomic hazards associated with material and equipment use, lifting, pushing and pulling. Until next issue remember – SAFETY FIRST!


1. Lighting Handbook, 10th edition, Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, New York, New York, 2010.

2. Occupational Noise Exposure, 29 CFR 1910.95 – U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, D.C., 2008.  

3. Threshold Limit Values and Biological Exposure Indices, American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2011.