by Stefan Wawzyniecki
Senior EHS Consultant

One of the earliest known examples of a laboratory supposedly belonged to the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, who analyzed the sonority of various instruments and researched acoustic concepts such as frequencies.  Fast-forward 2,500 years and you’ll find laboratories in a variety of settings such as schools, research institutions, government facilities, hospitals, manufacturing sites and more. 

Not all labs are created equal, however, with each space engineered for the specific type of research conducted within it.  Each laboratory will have its own unique stock of equipment, materials, chemicals and risks involved with the work being performed.  For example, the working environment of an analytical chemistry lab will differ from that of a state crime lab which will differ from a clinical diagnostic lab which will differ from a biosafety lab.  These laboratories all serve a unique purpose, yet amidst the pursuit of groundbreaking insights, one aspect must never be overlooked: safety.     

Laboratory safety isn’t merely a set of guidelines; it’s a fundamental commitment to protecting lives, preserving the integrity of research, and safeguarding the environment. Here, we explore the essential practices and principles that support a culture of safety in the laboratory.

  1. Education and Training: Knowledge is the cornerstone of safety. Every individual working in a laboratory must undergo comprehensive training on safety protocols, including handling hazardous materials, operating equipment, and responding to emergencies. Regular refresher courses ensure that knowledge remains current and accessible. 
  2. Risk Assessment: Before any experiment commences, a thorough risk assessment must be conducted. Identifying potential hazards allows researchers to implement appropriate controls, whether through engineering controls, administrative measures, or personal protective equipment (PPE).
  3. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): From lab coats and gloves to safety goggles and respirators, PPE serves as an important defense against chemical, biological and physical hazards. Ensuring that PPE is readily available and correctly worn by all personnel significantly reduces the risk of injury or exposure.
  4. Chemical Management: Proper handling, storage and disposal of chemicals are paramount. Laboratories must maintain accurate inventories, label all containers clearly, and adhere to established protocols for waste management. Regular inspections and audits help to enforce compliance and identify areas for improvement.
  5. Equipment Maintenance: Malfunctioning equipment can pose significant risks to both personnel and research outcomes. Regular maintenance schedules, conducted by qualified technicians, minimize the likelihood of accidents and ensure the accuracy and reliability of experimental results.
  6. Emergency Preparedness: Despite meticulous planning, emergencies can still occur. Laboratories must have robust emergency response plans in place, encompassing procedures for fires, spills, injuries and evacuations. Regular drills and simulations help to familiarize personnel with these protocols, ensuring a swift and coordinated response when crises arise.  Be proactive and plan for failure.
  7. Culture of Responsibility: Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Encouraging open communication, reporting near misses and addressing safety concerns without fear of reprisal fosters a culture where vigilance and accountability are valued traits.
  8. Continuous Improvement: Safety protocols should never remain static. Regular reviews, feedback mechanisms and lessons learned from incidents enable laboratories to adapt and evolve, continuously enhancing their safety practices and resilience.

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) play crucial roles in safeguarding the well-being of laboratory personnel and the environment. Understanding their regulations is essential for fostering a culture of safety and compliance within laboratory settings.

OSHA, established in 1970, is charged with ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for employees across various industries, including laboratories.  OSHA has several standards which apply to these environments:

OSHA Regulations

  1. Hazard Communication Standard (HCS): This standard requires employers to provide comprehensive training on chemical hazards and ensure that all hazardous chemicals are properly labeled and accompanied by safety data sheets (SDS).
  2. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): OSHA mandates that laboratories provide appropriate PPE, such as gloves, goggles and lab coats, to protect workers from chemical, biological and physical hazards.
  3. Bloodborne Pathogens Standard: Laboratories working with human blood, tissues or other potentially infectious materials must comply with this standard, which mandates the implementation of safety protocols to prevent exposure to bloodborne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis.
  4. Respiratory Protection Standard: Laboratories dealing with airborne contaminants must adhere to OSHA’s respiratory protection requirements, which include fit testing, medical evaluations and training on respirator use.
  5. Laboratory Standard (Lab Safety Standard): 29 CFR 1910.1450 is a Federal standard that regulates occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in the laboratories, emphasizing the importance of maintaining safe working conditions and implementing appropriate controls for hazardous substances.

EPA Regulations:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting human health and the environment by regulating the use and disposal of hazardous substances. In laboratory settings, EPA regulations primarily focus on:

  1. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA): Laboratories must adhere to RCRA regulations governing the generation, storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste. Compliance involves proper waste identification, labeling, storage and transportation, as well as maintaining accurate records of waste activities.
  2. Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA): Laboratories must comply with EPA regulations aimed at controlling air and water pollution. This includes managing emissions from laboratory equipment and ensuring that wastewater discharges meet established standards.
  3. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): Laboratories involved in the manufacture, import, processing or distribution of chemical substances must comply with TSCA regulations, which govern the evaluation and management of chemical risks to human health and the environment.

In the dynamic landscape of laboratory safety, adherence to OSHA and EPA regulations is non-negotiable and is not a mere checkbox to be ticked: it’s a holistic commitment to excellence and responsibility. By prioritizing safety at every stage of research and familiarizing themselves with these regulations and integrating them into their safety protocols, laboratories can mitigate risks, protect personnel and the environment and uphold the highest standards of scientific integrity and responsibility.  Be proactive! Plan for failure!  Build that culture of safety and compliance so you can protect your most valuable asset: your people. 

After reading this article and thinking about your facility, how would you answer this question:   “Are we safe by design?  Or safe by accident?”   

How We Can Help
The EI Group, Inc. strives to assist organizations in their quest to provide a safe, efficient and healthy work environment for all. Should you have questions regarding laboratory safety or other EHS concerns, please contact Stefan Wawzyniecki
at (984) 484-0204 or [email protected].