Hundreds of thousands of Americans are employed in laboratories throughout the United States. Laboratories can be hazardous places to work since lab workers are exposed to many potential hazards, whether chemical, biological, physical, radioactive, or ergonomic. Throughout its 50-year span of influence, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has promulgated safety rules and guidelines to make laboratories safer for US workers. However, having a greater personal understanding of the hazardous conditions that may be present in a laboratory is essential for full comprehension of these regulations.
Hazardous chemicals can present physical health threats to workers in various types of laboratories (e.g., clinical, industrial, and academic). Hazardous chemicals in labs may include cancer-causing agents (i.e., carcinogens) and toxins that affect specific areas such as the liver, kidneys, or nervous system. Additionally, chemicals used in labs can be irritants, corrosives, and sensitizers, as well as agents that affect the blood system or damage the lungs, skin, and eyes. OSHA has regulations in place that protect workers and limit exposures to approximately 400 substances.
Both OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (“HazCom”) and its Occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories standard may apply to labs where chemicals are used. In the case of HazCom application, the lab in question is required to have all containers labeled, adequate training performed, and safety data sheets on site for all chemicals used. In the case of Laboratory standard application, the employer would need to develop and introduce a Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP). The CHP outlines the appropriate procedures for procurement, storage, handling, and disposal of chemicals in use within the lab.
Some lab workers may be exposed to biological hazards. These hazards can be found in blood and body fluids, culture specimens, body tissue, and even laboratory animals. The OSHA Bloodborne pathogens standard (BBP) is designed to protect workers from exposure to bloodborne pathogens. Workers whose jobs put them at reasonable risk of coming into contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM) are covered by the standard. Employers must develop a written Exposure Control Plan, provide training, offer the hepatitis B vaccine, and comply with additional requirements. The BBP standard also requires safer needle devices and maintaining a log of injuries from contaminated sharps.
Laboratory workers could face several physical hazards at the same time. These include:
- Cuts or punctures from sharps.
- Slips, trips, and falls.
- Compressed gases.
- Burns or shock from electrical equipment.
Educating workers about these hazards, following safety procedures and policies, and using personal protective equipment can reduce or prevent accidents that involve these hazards.
OSHA’s Ionizing radiation standard outlines the necessary limitations of exposure to radiation from atomic particles. Radiation sources can pose a serious health risk to exposed workers when not correctly controlled. Any lab using radioactive isotopes must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and/or the NRC-approved state agency. A good protection program will:
- limit the entry of radionuclides into the human body (by ingestion, inhalation, absorption, or through open wounds) to quantities as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) and within recognized licenses, and
- keep exposure to external radiation as far below established dose limits as can be achieved.
Laboratory workers are commonly at risk for ergonomic or repetitive motion injuries (RMIs) during routine laboratory procedures like working at microscopes, pipetting, or using keyboards at workstations. RMIs develop over time and can happen when muscles and joints are stressed, tendons become irritated, nerves are pinched, and blood flow is restricted. Standing and working in awkward positions can also cause ergonomic problems. Workers can reduce the risk of occupational injuries while improving their comfort, efficiency, and job satisfaction by learning to control ergonomic-related risk factors. Stretching, taking breaks, and using adjustable tools and equipment (such as standing desks or dimmable lights) can help to prevent ergonomic injuries.
If laboratory workers are being exposed to any of these hazards, it is critical to take the necessary steps to keep them safe. Employers should evaluate the workplace and develop a plan for protecting employees by employing engineering controls such as adjustable workstations, administrative controls, training and safe work procedures, and appropriate PPE. Technology can help employers gather data, update and simplify workflows, eliminate paperwork, and stay ahead of the game. EH&S software assists employers to become more proactive, identifying and mitigating risk before it results in an accident or injury by assisting companies as they:
- Organize documents.
- Track and store training records.
- Store chemical inventories and safety data sheets.
- Comply with recordkeeping requirements.
- Store quality control procedures.
- Document PPE assessments.
- Track hepatitis B vaccines and other medical surveillance.
- Store and analyze accident, incident, and near miss information.
- Conduct accident investigations.
- Manage safety audits.
Using EH&S software to keep lab workers safe will save companies time, reduce waste and paperwork, increase efficiency, ensure regulatory compliance, and identify risks so that accidents and injuries can be reduced. While these tools are important for modern preventative safety measures, individual workers should still complete their due diligence in understanding the risks and hazards inherent to the work they perform. By combining knowledge and power, safety can advance even further.
The SafetyStratus Research Advisory Group (RAG) brings together thought leaders from the global environmental, health, and safety community to promote best practices and provide key insights in the profession and the industries they serve. The Research Advisory Group also advocates, where practical, the intersection of and advances with the use of technology, such as the SafetyStratus enterprise EHS software platform. Group membership consists of representatives from across varied disciplines and market sectors as well as select members of the SafetyStratus team.
The primary objectives of the SafetyStratus RAG partnership are to:
- Build a strategic partnership between EHS practitioners and the SafetyStratus team.
- Provide engaging and practical content to the global EHS community.
- Provide discipline and market feedback specific to SafetyStratus products and services.
While the objectives of the RAG are varied, the primary public-facing outcome will be available through engaging and practical content found on the SafetyStratus resource pages. Various articles, papers, and other valuable resources will be produced and shared as part of an ongoing effort to cultivate a robust community. Ultimately, the SafetyStratus RAG will expand to have a broader reach and provide opportunities for more inclusion by all interested EHS professionals in a collaborative community environment.