If you’re working in a chemical laboratory, safety is paramount. Moreover, as you pursue either chemistry studies or a career in the field, it will be upon you and you alone to understand how to maintain that safety in the day-to-day.
A chemistry lab is full of materials that can be dangerous if handled without the proper attention and care. For those who don’t yet know basic laboratory safety practices, we’ve put together this definitive checklist to get you started.
Step #1: Evaluate a Chemical Lab’s Dangers
You should approach all labs with care, but some are much more dangerous than others. The average school chemistry lab has fewer dangers than a government virology lab, after all.
Even before entering a lab, you should have some idea about what to expect about its nature. You should also make sure your entering doesn’t have a reasonable chance of disrupting what is being done.
In an educational setting, it is usually easy to evaluate what to expect from a lab. In a professional setting, it can be more difficult as the level of danger and your ability to disrupt labwork will vary.
If you’re ever unsure about the dangers of a lab, it can be a good idea to approach the head of the lab or another professional working there (while they’re not in the lab) and to ask. They can inform you of the basic procedure.
Step #2: Read Any Posted Material or Handouts
Related to the above, be sure to read any signage or other written material intended to convey important lab information before interacting with more of the lab.
While much of this material will tend to be self-explanatory to the average chemist, every chem lab setup is somewhat different. It is better to review the information that may be redundant than skip information you didn’t know.
Labs are full of many complex materials and devices that can react unexpectedly to forces we don’t always think about. Unless you understand what you’re about to handle, make no assumptions.
Exposure to temperature, air, and even light can affect certain devices, materials, and experiments in a lab. While not all these reactions will be dangerous, some can be, while others may be safe but still destroy materials or even whole experiments.
Step #3: Identify the Eye Wash Station
While a chemist’s hands are the place they’re most exposed to chemicals, it’s the eyes that tend to be the biggest source of concern.
This is because the eyes can be very sensitive to chemicals that aren’t harmful (or are much less harmful) during normal skin contact. In the worst cases, chemicals touching the eyes can cause damage or even blindness.
For this reason, the law requires most labs to have an eyewash station. This is a piece of equipment meant to help you wash out chemicals from your eyes in the event of exposure.
Knowing how to use such a station and the location of the nearest one is basic laboratory safety.
Step #4: Equip Yourself Properly
Before entering a lab, you should always make sure you’re equipped for the task. The specifics required of you will depend on the lab and the experiments therein, but there are some broad strokes assumptions that are safe to make.
In a lab, always wear closed, stable footwear. Avoid high heels of any kind, as well as sandals and other open-toed shoes. You should also wear socks, with socks covering the ankles or higher generally best.
While not all labs require it, long pants and a shirt with long sleeves will help keep you safer from any chemicals or other dangerous substances contacting your skin. However, make sure clothes are not loose, as this can be its own danger.
From there, actual lab safety gear comes into play. One of the most basic elements of lab safety is the lab coat. Lab coats further help prevent chemicals from touching your skin and can be shed if needed.
Most labs will require you to wear safety goggles, either at all times or whenever working with dangerous materials. These goggles help prevent chemicals from hitting the eyes in the event of a splash or other accident.
Gloves are another common requirement of labs, meant to protect your hands. Hands are often one of the most at-risk parts of the body as they’re what you’ll use to handle many of the lab’s materials.
Some labs may require you to wear quite heavy PPE (personal protective equipment) up to and including a full hazmat suit. However, this is rare, and you will be informed about such procedures at such labs.
Step #5: Do Everything With Purpose
When in a lab, everything you do should be deliberate. Chemistry has far less room for error than it often feels to a newcomer; if you want to maintain a safe environment for yourself and others, assume all decisions matter.
Never play or otherwise touch with equipment or materials unless you intend to use them (or need to move them for some legitimate purpose). Don’t rush either; take what you need in steps to reduce the risk of dropping anything.
It can help for a chemist to have a list, either written or in their head, of what they’ll be doing in the lab. Deviation from that list is allowed only if it is for a reason (such as missing a key detail or during an emergency).
Additionally, many outside activities like eating or drinking should more or less never happen in a lab (and most outright ban these activities). For those activities, in particular, there is a real risk of unintentionally ingesting dangerous chemicals.
Much of this step on your safety checklist could be summarized as “Act professional.” Chemistry labs are for doing legitimate chemistry. If you intend to do anything else, do it at a different time and outside the lab.
Step #6: Use Materials and Equipment Only as Intended
Related to the above, materials and equipment in a lab should only be used for their intended purpose. Using any materials or equipment off-label can be dangerous unless a chemist is certain it will be a non-issue.
Take, for instance, this company that offers SARMs for sale. Note its materials are intended for laboratory use only. While some SARMs are used by fitness aficionados, these materials are distinct in their purpose.
Mixing, ingesting, injecting, or otherwise misusing lab materials in ways those in charge of the lab didn’t intend can be dangerous to you and others. Even if you think it will be fine, never act against lab procedure.
Admittedly, sometimes a researcher may not know what properties or reactions to expect from materials, but it is the nature of their work to find out. However, in this scenario, others in the lab are prepared for that fact.
A researcher still uses materials in a manner expected by the other experts at the lab. The reactions also tend to be somewhat predictable by everyone involved, even if not every detail is known.
Step #7: React to Mistakes Quickly but Calmly
A good chemist needs to be able to react to mistakes in a quick but calm manner. Unintended reactions can cause big problems left unaddressed, but things can get much worse if you trip or panic into more errors.
The best way to react to a mistake in chemistry will depend on the nature of what has occurred. Oftentimes the worst that happens is an experiment will be ruined, but that isn’t the worst-case scenario.
The most frequent error that can cause panic is getting chemicals into one’s eyes. This can be painful, and your first reaction may be to thrash or rub at them. Instead, you need to move in a fast but calm fashion to an eyewash station and clean them out.
Fire is another emergency in a chemistry lab that is easy to panic around. Your first reaction should be to shut off any open flame if possible and move any flammable materials away from the fire.
From there, you or someone nearby needs to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher or fire blanket. Keep in mind that some chemical fires cannot be put out via water; use an extinguishment method appropriate to the fire.
Keep in mind that this advice is for manageable fires. Larger fires mean you should immediately evacuate and pull a fire alarm once in a safer area. Many labs also have a panic button that should be pressed if possible in such an emergency.
As a rule of thumb, react to emergencies by quickly centering yourself. Your base instincts are not always right, and you never want to swing around or thrash in a lab. Think about the situation and react as it makes the most sense.
Step #8: Store Materials Safely When Not in Use
Whether we’re talking about workplace safety or classroom safety, a lab’s materials should always be stored properly when not in use. Whether we’re discussing hydrochloric acid or saline solution, nothing should just be out if unneeded.
Chemical storage is a process that isn’t always intuitive as most people aren’t used to dealing with materials that can be so dangerous. The proper procedure is worthy of its own article, but we will review the basics here.
As a rule, every chemical in a lab should be labeled. They should always be in storage when not in use, and in such a way, there is no risk they mix with other chemicals, especially those they have known reactions to.
Whoever is storing any materials in a lab should be familiar with the properties of those materials and read any and all labels on the containers they come in.
All labs should be inventories at least once a year, and expired or ruined materials and equipment should be disposed of. This helps ensure all materials and equipment work as expected.
Additionally, security is important in labs as many materials and equipment may be expensive or dangerous. One should lock most storage areas when they’re not in use.
Step #9: Report Breaches of Safety and Ethics
It’s possible to do everything right in a lab and still be in an unsafe environment. If other people in a lab are acting in a way that is unsafe or unethical, it is important to report their behavior.
This isn’t a matter of “tattling” on one’s peers. Permanent injury and even death are not uncommon results of breaches in lab safety. Even basic negligence can cause serious issues if left unaddressed.
This is doubly true if the person in question is interacting with animals or especially human test subjects. From both a moral and safety perspective, it is critical everyone follows the procedure in such cases.
The proper party to report such breaches to will depend on the scenario and established lab procedure. Often all that will be necessary is reporting such breaches to the head of the lab, anonymously if needed.
However, if you’re worried the person you’re intended to report to is the issue or is not addressing the issue, you can go further. Reporting the issues to the head of the facility or even a regulating agency may be appropriate, depending on the situation.
Help Keep Your Chemical Laboratory Safe
Despite all the above, a chemical laboratory tends to only be dangerous as a result of human error. If everyone does their part, the chance for something to go seriously wrong falls dramatically.
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