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Laboratory Safety : Part One

Did you know that more than 500,000 people work at laboratories in the United States?  The laboratory can be a very dangerous place. Lab workers are exposed to all sorts of potential hazards including chemical hazards, physical hazards, biological hazards, radioactive hazards, and musculoskeletal stress.

There are regulations at the local, state and federal levels regarding laboratory safety. The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed a number of rules, and offers published guidance to increase the safety for laboratory personnel. Not all states have OSHA approved state plans, but all states must have standards and enforcement programs and policies in place that are equal to, or more stringent than, the OSHA approved regulations.

Safety Hazards in the Laboratory

Employers have an obligation to identify potential worksite hazards. Once identified, employers are obligated to provide their employees with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Employers are also obligated to make sure their employees use hand protection as appropriate. Common hand hazards include sharp instruments and thermal burns. Examples of appropriate PPE could include steel mesh gloves, or other gloves that are classified as “cut resistant” when employees are sorting or handling sharp instruments. Oven mitts could be used when handling hot items.

Autoclaves and Sterilizers

Employees should receive comprehensive training about the potential for cuts and burns that can occur when sorting or handling hot items and sharp items when removing them for sterilizers and autoclaves, or from the steam lines that service autoclaves.

Centrifuges

Centrifuges operate at a high rate of speed. There is potential for injury if employees do not use centrifuges properly. When centrifuge rotors are unbalanced, operating a centrifuge can result in grave injuries and even death. Sample containers may break in an unbalanced centrifuge. This could be extremely harmful, and the contents can be converted into aerosols which could be harmful if inhaled.

The majority of all centrifuge accidents and injuries can be attributable to operator error. As such, it is critical to provide training to employees on good work practices to prevent injuries and exposure to dangerous substances. For example, employers should train employees not to open the centrifuge lid until 10 minutes after the centrifuge rotor has stopped when centrifuging infectious materials. Employees should also be trained on decontamination procedures, and clean up procedures for each and every type of material that might be centrifuged in their lab. Finally, a comprehensive reporting process must be in place, where all spills are reported immediately.

Compressed Gases

Typically, compressed gases are supplied to laboratories through individual cylinders of gases or a fixed piped gas system. Compressed gases can be inert, corrosive, oxidizing, toxic, or even flammable. As such, the leakage of compressed gas can be hazardous. For example, a leaking inert gas, such as nitrogen, can quickly create an oxygen deficient atmosphere. Toxic gases, and flammable gases can result in fires and also may result in the cylinders exploding. There are also hazards associated with the weight of the cylinder containing the gas, and the pressure of the gas inside the cylinder. A falling gas cylinder can result in injured employees and broken lab equipment. Even more dangerous, if a cylinder valve is broken off, the gas cylinder can become a flying missile. Because of the high pressure that gases have within cylinders, regardless of the dangerousness of the contents, can lead to an extreme hazard if the gas cylinder is subjected to physical damage or high temperatures.

Because of the dangers associated with compressed gases, it is critical that compressed gasses be stored, handled, and used in accordance with OSHA approved standards. Cylinders must be stored upright, regardless of whether they are full or empty; when transporting compressed gas cylinders, protective caps must be in place; when transporting compressed gas cylinders, they must not be rolled or dragged in transport; cylinders should not be dropped; and finally, cylinders should not be permitted to strike each other with any degree of force.

Cryogens and Dry Ice

Cryogens are substances used to produce low temperatures. They come with significant potential hazards, and employees must be made aware of the potential for injury or even death.

  • Cold Contact Burns. While technically not a “burn,” cryogens can cause effects that are similar to a burn when liquid or low temperature gas from a cryogenic substance comes into contact with the skin.
  • Asphyxiation. Cryogens can cause a decrease in oxygen which can lead to varying degrees of asphyxia. This can happen when the cylinder fails or there is a leak in the transfer line. Depending on the amount of oxygen loss due to the leak, sudden death may occur when the oxygen content of the room is reduced to 6 percent by volume.
  • Explosion Due to Pressure. Care must be taken to allow for adequate pressure relief for all parts of the system, from pressure buildup in the containment vessels to the transfer line to permit adequate pressure relief. A failure to do so could result in pressure buildup that leads to an explosion.
  • Explosion Due to Chemicals. Certain cryogenic fluids are susceptible to condensing oxygen from the atmosphere. This is a contaminant which can lead to violent reactions, such as an explosion or rapid combustion can occur if employers and laboratory employees neglect to take an adequate amount of care.

Employers have a responsibility to make sure safety hazards are kept to a minimum. When transferring or handling cryogenic fluids, appropriate PPE must be worn, including safety goggles or a face shield, long sleeved shirts, lab coats, aprons, and safety gloves. Hand protection, such as cryogen safety gloves, should also be used.

What You Should Do If You Were Injured in the Laboratory

If you have been injured in a laboratory incident, you may be able to recover damages from your employer. Contact the determined Savannah workers’ compensation claim attorneys at the Bader Law Firm, LLC for a free consultation to discuss your case. There is no cost to you unless we prevail on the merits of your case.

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