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Lab Safety

Picture this: It's your first day ever working in the lab. Excited, you start working on your experiment. Tragedy strikes when you accidentally knock over an Erlenmeyer flask and get a dangerous chemical on your arm. After a long trip to the ER, you might ask yourself: could I have prevented this? The answer is yes. 

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Picture this: It's your first day ever working in the lab. Excited, you start working on your experiment. Tragedy strikes when you accidentally knock over an Erlenmeyer flask and get a dangerous chemical on your arm. After a long trip to the ER, you might ask yourself: could I have prevented this? The answer is yes.

Today we will be learning all about lab safety, so you can be properly protected while in the lab (and not have to visit any emergency rooms).

  • This article covers lab safety
  • First, we will learn why lab safety is so important
  • Next, we will look at some possible dangerous scenarios that could happen in the lab
  • Then, we will learn about the personal protective equipment designed to keep you safe
  • Thereafter, we will cover some equipment in the lap to protect you in case of emergencies
  • Lastly, we will learn about the NFPA hazard diamond and see how it used to label chemicals

Why is lab safety important?

When reading the intro, you may have thought to yourself, "Well, I'm not going to be working with anything that dangerous". While that may be true, keeping yourself safe is a top priority. Accidents in the lab could lead to serious injury or even death!

While not every experiment runs the risk of having a brush with death, it is always a good idea to keep your safety in mind. Knowing the best practices and keeping to them is never a bad thing, and can protect you when things get a bit more dangerous.

Lab Safety Scenarios

As I just mentioned, there are plenty of different hazards that you can run across in that lab, such as:

1. Fire/Explosions

In a lab, you should treat all chemicals and liquids as if they were as dangerous as gasoline. Vapors can travel a long way, and if they reach a flame or spark, they can catch fire. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher on hand and that everyone in the lab knows where it is. This will stop fires from spreading. Personal protective equipment (PPE) like a lab coat that is resistant to flames should also be worn.

2. Burns from heat and chemicals

Both organic and inorganic chemicals can be flammable or hurt your skin and eyes. To avoid spills and splashes, it's important to be careful with chemicals. Also, the right PPE should always be worn, such as lab coats that protect against both fire and chemical splashes (CP).

3. Chemicals Getting Through the Skin

In order to keep the lab safe, chemicals should never come in direct contact with the skin. Even if a chemical is not corrosive, getting it on your skin can cause allergic reactions or other problems.

Remember that some chemical reagents can get through gloves even if they don't look worn. If you've used gloves that have come in contact with such chemicals, get a new pair right away. Don't touch your face or eyes until all chemicals or solvents are gone from your hands. Wear a lab coat as an extra safety measure to keep chemicals from getting to you through the fabric.

4. Breathing in Dangerous Fumes

If you breathe in many common solvents, they are very dangerous, and breathing in certain chemicals can severely irritate the membranes in your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. To lower these risks, you should never let excess solvents evaporate.

When pouring chemicals, lab workers should use a fume hood if possible, while also keeping a safe distance.

5. Cuts and Scrapes

One of the most common types of accidents in the lab is cuts to the skin. In the worst cases, nerves and tendons can be cut. Most of the time, these accidents happen when someone tries to force a cork or rubber stopper into a glass tube, thermometer, or distilling flask. To avoid this accident, you should make a hole that is the right size, grease the cork or stopper, and apply light pressure while rotating the glass part.

Lab Safety Supplies

When in the lab, you should always wear your personal protection equipment (PPE). These supplies are designed to keep you safe from any harmful chemicals you may be working with

1. Eyes protection:

Chemicals or other things in the lab can easily hurt your eyes, so you should always wear eye protection. Safety glasses or goggles must be worn.

Even if you wear glasses, you must wear safety glasses/goggles. Safety glasses/goggles must meet a higher standard for protection, so they can protect you from hazards that your normal glasses cannot

2. Lab coat:

The lab coat is meant to keep your clothes and skin safe. This is because nearby chemicals could splash. You can also wear an apron on top to protect yourself even more from chemicals that can burn or irritate your skin.

Not all labs may require you to wear a lab coat, so you should always wear clothes that cover the skin. This also means wearing closed-toed shoes, so no flip-flops!

3. Gloves:

When working with chemicals that could hurt you, it's important to wear protective gloves to avoid getting hurt. Make sure the gloves are in good shape and don't have any holes, rips, or tears.

The main purpose of these supplies is to prevent you from coming into direct contact with a harsh chemical. If you do come into contact with something hazardous, you may need to use an eyewash station or safety shower, which we will discuss in the next section.

Lab Safety Equipment

There are four main pieces of equipment designed to keep you safe in the lab, these are:

  1. Eyewash station
  2. Fire extinguisher
  3. Safety shower station
  4. Fume hoods

Each piece of equipment has its own dedicated area in the lab. Make sure you know where each is located.

Eyewash station

Laboratory Safety Eyewash Station StudySmarterFig.1-Image of an eyewash station

In case of an emergency, laboratory eyewash stations can be used to flush chemicals out of your eyes. To use an eyewash station, rest your eyes on the two spouts, then turn on the water. You should keep your eyes open and on the eyewash station for at least 15 minutes so the harmful chemicals are completely flushed out.

Fire extinguisher

Laboratory Safety Fire Extingusher StudySmarterFig.2-Image of fire extinguisher

Your lab should also have a fire extinguisher handy in case of a fire. To use a fire extinguisher, you should follow PASS:

P: Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher

A: Aim the nozzle at the fire while keeping a safe distance

S: Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent

S: Sweep the nozzle from left to right while aiming at the base of the fire. Continue until the fire has been extinguished

Safety shower stations

Lastly, every lab should contain a safety shower

Laboratory Safety Safety Shower StudySmarterFig.3-Safety shower with attached eyewash station

Safety showers are designed to wash away any harmful skin irritants. The length of the shower depends on the nature of the hazard:

  • Mild irritant: 5 minutes

  • Moderate to severe irritants: 15-20 minutes

  • Corrosive materials: 30 minutes

  • Strong bases: 60 minutes

Safety showers also have a detachable hose, so only certain parts of the body are rinsed.

It is also common to have the eyewash station attached to the safety shower, as shown in the image above.

Fume hoods

Laboratory Safety Fume Hood StudySmarterFig.4-A fume hood

Unlike the other pieces of equipment on this list, fume hoods are designed to prevent accidents, not treat them.

When performing experiments, it is best to do them under a fume hood. Fume hoods have a ventilation system that filters the air inside of them, to prevent the user from inhaling any harsh chemicals.

Lab Safety Symbols

When working with chemicals, you may see a diamond with some numbers and maybe lettering. This diamond is called the NFPA hazard diamond (or NFPA 704), which gives you hazard information about the chemical.

Below is a breakdown of what these codes mean:

Laboratory Safety NFPA Hazard Codes StudySmarterFig.5-Explanations for the NFPA hazard codes

It's very important to watch out for these codes since they tell us how hazardous a chemical may be. For example, if a chemical has a 4 reactivity code, you should use the chemical with extreme caution, as it is explosive.

Lab Safety - Key takeaways

  • When in the lab, you should also wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as:
    • Gloves
    • Eyeglasses/goggles
    • Lab coat/Protective clothing
  • There are several pieces of equipment designed to keep you safe in a lab, these are:
    • Eyewash station: Washes irritants out of your eyes
    • Fire extinguishers: Used to put out fires
    • Chemical safety showers: Used to wash off irritants on the body and/or clothes
    • Fume hoods: Used to prevent inhalation of harmful fumes
  • The NFPA hazard diamond (or NFPA 704) gives you hazard information about the chemical:
    • Blue (0-4): Describes health hazard
    • Red (0-4): Describes fire hazard
    • White: Labels specific hazards
    • Yellow (0-4): Describes reactivity

References

  1. Fig.1-Image of an eyewash station (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/07/Rince-oeil_manuel_%2B_Logo.jpg/640px-Rince-oeil_manuel_%2B_Logo.jpg) by IUT R. Schuman Illkirch Dpt. Chimie on Wikimedia Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
  2. Fig.3-Safety shower with attached eyewash station (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/35/Emergency_Shower_and_Eye_Wash_Station.jpg/640px-Emergency_Shower_and_Eye_Wash_Station.jpg) by Sorawit.pai on Wikimedia Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
  3. Fig.5-Explanations for the NFPA hazard codes (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/NFPA-704-diamond-standard.svg/640px-NFPA-704-diamond-standard.svg.png) by Marcos Rodríguez Bobadilla on Wikimedia Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Lab Safety

Immediately inform your supervisor or teacher, evacuate the area if necessary, and consult the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for specific spill management instructions. Use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and spill kits to clean up the spill according to established protocols.

Essential PPE for working in a chemical laboratory includes safety goggles or glasses, lab coats or protective gowns, gloves compatible with the chemicals being handled, and closed-toe shoes. In some cases, face shields and respiratory protection may also be required.

To properly dispose of chemical waste in the laboratory, segregate it according to its type (e.g., organic, inorganic, aqueous, solid) in designated containers. Label each container clearly with its contents and hazards. Follow your institution's specific protocols for chemical waste disposal, including using appropriate containment and contacting authorised waste disposal personnel for collection.

In case of a fire in the laboratory, immediately sound the alarm, evacuate the area, use the nearest fire extinguisher if it is safe to do so, and call emergency services. Always prioritize personal safety and follow the emergency procedures of your laboratory.

Store chemicals according to their hazard class in designated areas, ensuring incompatible substances are segregated. Use appropriate, clearly labelled, and sealed containers. Keep flammable chemicals in a flammable storage cabinet and acids in a corrosives cabinet. Ensure storage areas are well-ventilated, away from direct sunlight and heat sources.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of the following is NOT a common lab hazard?

What is PPE?

True or False: You don't need to wear safety glasses if you wear prescription glasses

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