Working safely in a laboratory

laboratoryDid you know that over 500,000 workers are employed in laboratories in the US? It’s an environment that can be dangerous to work in, but there are some simple steps you can take to minimize any risk.

Laboratory workers are frequently exposed to a number of risks and potential hazards including chemical, physical and biological. Lab safety is closely monitored and governed by local, state and federal regulations and the main standard used to test and calibrate laboratories is the IEC 17025 – a benchmark of excellence for all laboratories and the basis of an accreditation from an accredited body.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (OSHA), has worked hard over the last few years to make labs a safer place to work.

What are my rights?
Employers have a responsibility to provide their employees with a safe workplace and working conditions that are free from known dangers. Employees are free to raise any concerns about health and safety or report an injury without fear of retribution from their employers.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Employers must pay for, and supply, suitable PPE and ensure it is worn wherever there is a hazard. In order to assess what potential hazards there may be, employers must complete a full assessment of the workplace before issuing the correct equipment to cover the appropriate body parts, including arms, legs, face and head.

Chemical Hazards
Be aware of any chemical hazards that present a threat either physically or to health. Laboratory chemicals can contain cancer causing agents and toxins that could affect the liver, kidney and nervous systems.

Formaldehyde is one of the most commonly used hazardous chemicals in laboratories and employees should be protected against the harmful effects of this.

Each laboratory must identify which hazardous chemicals are likely to be encountered by its staff and chemical containers should be clearly labelled.

One of the most commonly found chemicals that the lab worker might encounter during his day-to-day job is latex. Latex is a plant protein that can cause severe allergies and sensitivities. It can cause anything from contact dermatitis to a life-threatening reaction.

Once a worker becomes allergic to latex, special precautions should be taken to prevent exposure. However, if the allergy is severe, latex should be avoided completely wherever possible.

Physical Hazards
Laboratory workers are frequently exposed to a number of physical hazards that could affect their long-term health. These include radiation, noise hazards and ergonomic problems in later life.

The repetitive motion of some lab tasks, such as pipetting and working with microscopes, can cause injury over time or when muscles are stressed and inflamed. Employers should take measures to ensure these risks are minimized in order to improve workers comfort, increase productivity and job satisfaction.

Noise is also an issue from a wide variety of sources – labs can often be very loud places to work. Noise exposure assessments should be carried out to establish whether they exceed the recommended threshold for safe noise levels. The potential dangers of exposure to continuous noise include: Depression, reduced concentration and productivity, and an increase in the number of errors made.