Thousands of Americans are employed in laboratories where they perform work to find cures for diseases, better understand and control infectious agents and toxins, and improve our lives and health. As with all occupations, laboratory workers face risks that vary depending on their specific work and projects. Laboratory workers must apply EH&S principles and follow them carefully to ensure the safety of themselves, their peers, their community, and the environment. Laboratory safety is the employment of safe work practices, safety equipment, and specially designed work areas to meet this end and protect others from the dangers of infectious agents and biological hazards.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has several workplace standards for laboratory safety, including:
- The Bloodborne Pathogens Standard,
- The Hazard Communication (HazCom) Standard, and
- The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Standard.
OSHA’s General Duty Clause states that all US employers shall “furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” When applied to the concept of work with biological hazards, this means that lab employers must offer a biosafety and biocontainment program to protect workers within their facilities. Comprehensive biosafety protocols identify any biological hazards, measure the level of health-related risks those hazards create, and explore ways to reduce these risks to laboratory workers.
Applicable OSHA Standards
- Hazard Communication
Hazardous chemicals that can present physical danger include combustible liquids and compressed gases. Chemicals can also be explosive, flammable, and unstable.
Health hazards associated with chemicals include burns, birth defects, and damage to certain organs.
Requirements: OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard applies to all workplaces (including laboratories) where chemicals are used. Laboratory managers must therefore ensure that all chemical containers are labeled, safety training is performed, a chemical inventory has been created, and safety data sheets (SDS) are readily available to all workers. (Employees must have “immediate access” to SDSs in case of an emergency, meaning that they must be able to view that critical information during the same work shift that the situation occurred, which has become easier to comply with due to the introduction of electronic SDS management). OSHA also requires that employers develop a “written program” that outlines how the company complies with the HazCom Standard.
2. Bloodborne Pathogens
When laboratory workers are exposed to biological hazards like blood and other potentially infectious materials (OPIM), the employer must comply with OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. The standard protects workers who may have contact with blood and other OPIM while performing their roles. This applies especially to potential contact with any human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the hepatitis B virus (HBV)—the most common pathogens transmitted through occupational exposure to blood and bodily fluids.
Requirements: Employers must develop a written Exposure Control Plan, provide employees with training that covers processes for minimizing exposure, and offer workers the hepatitis B vaccine. The standard also requires employers to maintain a log of needlestick injuries.
3. Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed to protect workers from specific hazards and hazardous materials. When administrative and engineering controls cannot reduce the level of risk to an acceptable level, PPE is included in safety protocols. It is important to note that PPE does not reduce or eliminate the hazards but serves to protect the wearer when those hazards are encountered. Common types of PPE found in laboratories include:
- Face Shields
- Lab Coats and Aprons
- Closed Footwear
Ultimately, determinations for required PPE will depend on what infectious agent or toxin is being handled and what laboratory procedures are being performed by the worker.
Requirements: OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment Standard requires that employers first conduct an analysis of job tasks to identify potential hazards and assign PPE that can help to protect workers. The employers must then provide the PPE and employ a system (e.g., checklists, software, etc.) and/or employee (e.g., laboratory safety manager) that ensures the PPE is used correctly. Employers must also provide training for workers so that they know:
- what PPE is required when performing a task
- how to correctly wear and maintain the PPE
- the limitations and disposal processes for the PPE.
How Technology Can Help
Employers have the responsibility of protecting their workers, whether that is accomplished through engineering controls (e.g., machine guarding), administrative controls (e.g., scheduled preventative maintenance for machines, equipment inspections, etc.), assigning safety training, providing necessary PPE, or a combination of any or all of these.
EH&S professionals no longer need to overload their desks with piles of paperwork documenting safety protocol and compliance responsibilities. Technology has improved safe work in many ways (such as making it possible to electronically manage SDSs and other records), and when it comes to recording and processing data the advantages are proven and vast. Software has been developed that helps in the areas of gathering and storing data, identifying and analyzing hazards, and projecting accident trends. All these innovative methods help protect workers by enabling safety procedures and risk mitigation to be more proactive. The following are specific responsibilities that EH&S software can assist:
- Coordinating documentation and communication.
- Maintaining training records.
- Compiling and accessing chemical inventories and SDSs electronically.
- Scheduling PPE fit testing.
- Storing vaccine records and other medical surveillance documentation.
- Conducting incident investigations and other assessments.
EH&S software aids laboratory workers and managers as they perform their essential roles, increasing the efficiency of everyday tasks, reducing the resource waste from over-ordering supplies, saving space by electronically managing SDS and other necessary documents, making it easier to perform regulatory compliance activities, and (most of all) identifying and minimizing laboratory risks and preventing accidents and injuries in the workplace.
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.