Laboratory Safety with an Attitude

From former EH&S director Barbara F. Keyes

Safety is an attitude.  Safety is a quality-control issue.  How we do our work determines the quality of our work, and ultimately the quality of our life.  Evaluating work habits and improving best practices can eliminate mistakes, increase efficiency, and reduce risk.

The myriad of regulations often seems like an encumbering tangle of prescriptive do's and don'ts enforced through punitive actions.  They do, in fact, boil down to some simple concepts:  Risk avoidance and management through Safe and Best Work Practices.  In this context, they become manageable and take on a certain logical perspective.

All regulations have evolved as a result of catastrophic events.  Environmental Health & Safety regulations are designed to prevent harm to human health and the environment.  The two agencies charged with enforcing this mission are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.  The purpose of regulations is to reduce the pain and suffering associated with injuries, disease and loss of income, and reduce the burden of the costs associated with these incidents.

Practicing safe science increases the quality of the science and utilizes the concept of "best practices" to promote quality and to reduce and avoid risk of exposures.  The routes of exposure are ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact.  Therefore, prevention of exposures in laboratories is achieved by avoiding behaviors that introduce toxic materials into our systems.  The OSHA Laboratory Standard requires that a site-specific chemical hygiene plan be written.  This plan should basically consist of documenting good work practices and protocol procedures.

Elements of a chemical hygiene plan should include:

  • Identification of all hazards (physical, including radiological, chemical, and biological).
  • Labeling of all materials.
  • Having Material Safety Data Sheets available for ready reference.
  • Determining the risk associated with all materials.
  • Documenting all processes and protocols.
  • Employing engineering controls to reduce risk (fume hoods, biological safety cabinets).
  • Personal protective equipment such as safety glasses, goggles, clothing, and gloves.
  • Educating all personnel to the hazards and best work practices and techniques.
  • Pre-determining appropriate materials-handling techniques and containers to avoid spills, contamination, and exposure.
  • Determining the proper disposition of waste.
  • Eliminating the risk of exposure, illness and incidents through training in good work practices.
  • If necessary, provide environmental monitoring to guarantee risk management; and if necessary, provide medical surveillance.
  • Report all incidents and injuries to the appropriate safety professionals.
  • Avoid ingestion of hazardous materials (no eating, drinking) in the laboratory.

Compliance with safe work practices is the responsibility of everyone, but is internally monitored by both the Radiation Safety and Environmental Health and Safety Offices.  Failure to follow safe practices after training and education may:

  • Constitute willful negligence.
  • Create personal liability.
  • Be cause for disciplinary action, including the withholding of materials privileges.
  • Result in constructive discipline and dismissal as well as civil action.