Do Your Research: Protect Lab Workers from Chemical and Biological Hazards

Laboratories are dangerous places, and university laboratories have proved deadly with disturbing regularity in recent years. In 2008, for example, a lab research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles, was killed in a flash fire. In January 2010, an explosion at Texas Tech University cost a graduate student three fingers and caused severe eye damage. In April 2011, a graduate student was found dead in a Yale University chemistry lab, her long hair wound tightly around a lathe.

Because of these and other incidents, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a document addressing laboratory safety. It offers laboratory managers 50 pages of guidance on protecting workers from hazards, some of which are also specifically addressed by OSHA standards. In addition, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has released a video, “Experimenting with Danger,” which addresses the potential hazards associated with conducting research in academic institutions’ chemical laboratories.

Two categories of hazards faced by laboratory workers are discussed below.

Chemical Hazards

In a lab, employees might work with small quantities of highly hazardous chemicals or with chemicals whose hazards have not been fully characterized. To protect these workers against chemical hazards, employers must comply with the following standards:

  • 29 CFR 1910.1200, Hazard Communication. Much of what is required for compliance with this standard should be covered by compliance with the lab standard (29 CFR 1910.1450, below), although employers should make sure to check compliance with both standards.
  • Any applicable substance-specific standards found in Section 1910 Subpart Z, Toxic and Hazardous Substances.
  • 29 CFR 1910.1450, Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories (Under this standard, laboratories must prepare a unique plan, called a chemical hygiene plan, that provides guidelines for prudent practices and procedures for the use of chemicals in the laboratory.)
  • The personal protective equipment (PPE) standards found in 29 CFR 1910.132, 133, 134, and 138, which cover general PPE requirements, eye and face protection, hand protection, and respiratory protection.

Biological Hazards

This category includes bloodborne pathogens, other biological agents, and biological toxins.

To protect workers against biological hazards in the laboratory, employers must comply with OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard (29 CFR 1910.1030) including, where applicable, the special requirements found in paragraph (e) for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C virus research laboratories and production facilities.

For additional guidance on protecting workers from biological hazards, the Canadian Public Health Agency has created a set of pathogen safety data sheets (PSDSs) on infectious agents for personnel working in the life sciences that employers may find useful. These PSDSs on infectious agents contain health hazard information such as infectious dose, viability (including decontamination), medical information, laboratory hazard, recommended precautions, handling information, and spill procedures.

Tomorrow we’ll look at two more categories of hazards that laboratory workers may encounter: physical hazards (including radiation and ergonomic hazards) and the safety hazards posed by laboratory equipment.

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