Lab Safety 101: Health & Safety Resource For Students
Whenever using chemicals in the laboratory there is always going to be a certain element of risk – These are dangerous and hazardous substances after all. Of course, every lab’s main goal is to protect students from injury and as such, a risk assessment should be conducted before commencing with a project.
Risk assessments analyse if there is a risk of hazard and if so, what precautions can be taken to ensure a problem doesn’t present itself.
The Health Dangers Of Chemicals
In any laboratory, chemicals can cause physical and health threats to workers. This isn’t limited to education settings either and is the case in clinical and industrial settings too. Chemicals found in the lab may include cancer-causing agents (carcinogens), toxins that’ll affect the nervous system, irritants and even harmful products to the blood or organs. As such, you can never be ‘too safe’ when working in the lab.
When working and dealing with hazardous chemicals, there are three ways you could potentially be exposed. This is through skin, oral ingestion and inhalation.
Your skin is at particular risk when dealing with chemicals and accurate safety precautions should be taken at all times to minimise risk. The most common complaint from skin contact with chemicals is irritation, but you could easily suffer a mild to severe burn as well. Any toxic chemicals could also pass through to the bloodstream after coming into contact with skin.
Your eyes are one of the most sensitive areas and can be irritated by even the smallest of objects, let alone hazardous chemicals. Corrosive and toxic chemicals will cause extreme pain and injury, therefore it’s important to act quickly and seek medical assistance immediately
Unless deliberate, oral ingestion of chemicals will be a complete accident and as such, can easily be avoided. If you ingest chemicals, seek medical advice.
Inhalation is the most common way of chemicals entering your body and as such, precautions should be taken to ensure avoiding this. Even the smallest amount of toxin inhaled into the body can be rapidly absorbed and cause damage.
Exposure symptoms range from irritation, coughing, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Depending on the chemical absorbed into the body, it can also be fatal and cause lasting damage to organs such as the kidneys, liver and lungs.
Harmful Chemical Examples
In the laboratory, the chances are you’ll be dealing with a whole range of dangerous chemicals. Below we list just a few of the more hazardous chemicals you could come face-to-face with.
Acetone is commonly found in laboratories, so it’s important to understand the best handling practices. First off, it’s important to remember acetone is extremely flammable and has a low flash point – So it can be ignited at low temperatures.
Acetone is therefore a severe fire hazard and may even cause an explosion if not handled correctly. Even spilling the chemical can be very dangerous as it’s prone to reacting with oxidizing agents.
Chlorinated solvents can be very hazardous, causing cancer and lasting organ damage. They’ll easily absorb into the skin and precaution must be taken at all times.
Hydrofluoric acid can be harmful to people and can cause personal injury. Being both colourless and odourless, hydrofluoric acid is difficult to detect and won’t ‘burn’ straight away when in contact with skin. Instead, it will eat into your flesh and bone, eventually getting into your blood stream. At this point the excruciating pain begins and if left untreated it’s fatal.
A combination of Hydrogen Peroxide and Sulfuric Acid is commonly referred to as liquid piranha. It’s a very aggressive chemical, used scientifically to remove heavy metal contamination and cleaning Si wafers.
If this chemical comes into contact with skin it’ll be extremely aggressive, causing both pain and lasting damage. It’s also difficult to dispose of as it’ll continue to react for a long period of time.
Handling Of Compressed Air & Gases
All compressed airs and gases should be handled delicately and treated seriously. On most occasions they’ll be contained in cylinders of solid drawn steel. Ensure these are never subjected to heat or shocks and keep them stored in an upright position.
When opening the cylinders, do so slowly and without improvising with other tools. Ensure two stage regulators are used on the cylinder and beware of leaks – If you spot a leak, seal the cylinder and contact someone of authority. If this is a flammable gas, ensure to house it somewhere of safety first.
Handling Of Liquefied Gases
With the liquefied gases there’s a greater need to be aware of the potential dangers, and these are in fact more hazardous than handling liquids and solids. Before coming into contact with liquefied gases it’s important to know their hazardous properties – flammability, chemical activity, corrosive effects etc.
It’s important to remember, liquefied gases can easily ignite with a low flash point and in many cases these gases are both odourless and colourless.
Hazards relating to liquefied gases often present themselves through leaking and/or improper use. Just some of the complications involved include:
- Leaking gases released will contaminate the atmosphere, leading to effects such as toxicity, asphyxiation and formation of explosive concentrations.
- Low flash points increase the likelihood of a fire or explosion
- Low boiling point gases such as liquefied nitrogen and oxygen can cause frostbite when in contact with skin and tissue
- Effects such as corrosion, irritation and high reactivity.
Biological hazards are more common in industrial laboratories, although as a student, you may also come into contact with these deadly biological agents. Extreme care and attention is required at all times and failure to handle chemicals correctly may lead to lasting tissue and organ damage, or even death.
All biological materials present potential hazards and as such, there are certain precautions, which should always be taken (see our laboratory safety section). There is also legislation in place to protect lab workers, known as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. These regulations outline correct procedure for handling hazardous biological material, including information on implementing safety.
There are various biological agents and toxins you could come across in the laboratory setting, including microorganisms, cell cultures and human endoparasites. These are classed into four main groups:
- Group 1: In Group 1 you’ll find biological materials unlikely to cause human harm. There has been a long history of safe use and these include non-pathogenic and disabled bacteria.
- Group 2: Group 2 biological materials could be harmful and hazardous to workers if incorrectly managed. This includes E. coli, adenovirus and clostridium.
- Group 3: In Group 3 you’ll be presented with materials capable of causing serious harm and could even spread in the community. This category includes Hepatitis B, HIV and salmonella.
- Group 4: In the most severe group are biological materials unlikely to be worked on in student laboratories. This would include highly contagious and dangerous strains of viruses, such as Ebola and Rabies.
Bloodborne pathogens can be particularly hazardous to workers, but nowadays there are many rules and regulations in place in order to protect you. For students, the likelihood of coming into contact with bloodborne pathogens is extremely rare.
However, before working with bloodborne pathogens, you will need to complete relevant training and have a thorough understanding of the best practice guidelines.
There are up to 5.6 million workers in the healthcare industry at risk of bloodborne pathogens and these include HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. Professionals most at risk include first aid workers, housekeeping personnel, nurses and other healthcare workers.
Depending on the pathogen, infection can be spread through saliva, blood, semen, vaginal secretion, cerebrospinal fluid, synovial fluid, pleural fluid, pericardial fluid, peritoneal fluid and amniotic fluid.