In general, managing a lab requires paying attention to a lot of moving parts, and outdated safety monitoring protocols increase the likelihood of overlooking critical aspects of environmental, health, and safety (EH&S). Chemical laboratories store many chemicals with varying toxicity levels and handling requirements. The equipment used in laboratories ranges in operational complexity and sensitivity to chemicals and other environmental factors. Knowledge transfer is crucial in keeping laboratory members up to date with safety practices but can be a difficult process if turnover rates are high in laboratories. Switching to a digital approach for maintaining and implementing all these essential EH&S protocols can significantly decrease the predominance and power of risks.
1. Hazard concentration is higher in laboratories than in most workplaces.
Innovation comes at a price, and in chemical laboratories, this takes the form of an increased concentration of hazards. Laboratories need accessible assessment tools that readily locate any potential causes of accidents. The effectiveness of such tools is measured by the level of control measure management it can provide, as this will be the practical application that mitigates the risks. For instance, the gloves, lab coats, and masks that are already available in many laboratories may not be the appropriate PPE for mitigating the risk associated with using concentrated acids. Some acids can easily penetrate nitrile gloves, poke holes into cotton lab gowns, and produce vapor that gets into N95 masks. In this case, butyl gloves, PVC aprons, and masks specifically designed to block vapors would be necessary. A laboratory manager needs to understand not only this example of precautions, but hundreds of other similar hazard scenarios to make laboratories as safe as possible. The process of manually identifying hazards, researching their appropriate controls, and implementing those controls is both time-consuming and prone to human error. To significantly improve this practice, laboratory safety personnel can use assessment tools such as EH&S software to provide a list of hazards associated with laboratory processes and their corresponding control measures. Additionally, incorporating the accessibility of an electronic safety data sheet (SDS) management system will allow employees to respond in the case of an emergency (i.e., a hazardous chemical spill) more promptly.
2. Turnover rates will always be high in academic laboratories.
Laboratories require a robust system for knowledge transfer and safety training to keep up with high turnover rates. While most companies take pride in low turnover rates, keeping this metric down to a minimum is more challenging in academic laboratories. The latter typically consists of undergraduate and graduate students who will naturally move to new laboratories or workplaces once they complete their research requirements. Even post-doctoral positions are inherently temporary. Hence, knowledge transfer and safety training are an ever-present challenge. EH&S software that allows administrators to easily store and track training records will make assigning and following up on educational sessions a much simpler process.
3. Laboratories need quickly accessible and comprehensive chemical inventories
The safe handling and storage of chemicals requires access to a detailed and accurate list (inventory) of the chemicals and their corresponding SDSs present in a facility at any given time. Ten years after one of the most startling accidents to take place in an academic laboratory, experts still believe that adequate implementation of laboratory safety practices has a long way to go. Identifying and quantifying all chemicals present in a laboratory is the first step to limiting exposure and mitigating risks associated with these reagents.
Given the immense number of chemicals usually stored in laboratories with varying handling and storage requirements, principal investigators and lab managers should consider incorporating EH&S management software with electronic SDS and chemical inventory solutions that can perform the following tasks:
- Configurable searches that can be saved for quick access and repeat use.
- Tracking of chemical transactions (including purchase approvals, container transfer, usage, disposal, location transfer, etc.).
- Delivery of automated, electronic notifications for expiration dates, testing dates and results, low inventory levels, maximum allowable quantities (MAQ), etc.
- Attaching electronic SDSs for each newly added chemical.
4. Laboratory protocols need to keep up with evolving regulations.
Compliance protocols should be automated and kept up-to-date to avoid penalties for delays or resulting accidents. Maintaining a safe laboratory environment requires, at the minimum, adhering to regulatory standards. OSHA has multiple standards for US-based laboratories that are related to the 3 main aspects of laboratory safety:
- personal protective equipment (PPE)
- general environmental controls, and
- toxic and hazardous substances.
The 1910.1450 standard dictates that laboratories must have a chemical hygiene plan (which contains information to protect employees from hazardous chemicals) that is updated annually AND whenever a new chemical, equipment, or process is used in the laboratory. Complying with this regulation alone can be daunting if a laboratory regularly utilizes thousands of hazardous chemicals. EH&S software leverages a chemical inventory (as previously discussed) in conjunction with a compliance calendar can help laboratory safety managers keep track of compliance deadlines and monitor the progress of assigned compliance-related tasks.
Laboratories face 4 key challenges:
- high concentration of hazards;
- high turnover rates;
- huge inventory of chemicals with varying handling needs; and
- plenty and constantly changing regulations.
At the core of cutting-edge research, there should always be dependable laboratory safety protocols to keep researchers safe. As this work entails tracking and improving many moving parts, laboratory safety benefits in many ways from the addition of EH&S software that can digitize these processes. EH&S protocols for monitoring hazards, safety training, chemical use, SDS management, and compliance requirements in laboratories can be dynamic and ongoing. Streamlining and automating the actions and communication necessary to complete these essential duties will help any laboratory team keep up to speed and at the front of advancing their research.
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.
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Kemsley, J. (2018, December 28). 10 years after Sheri Sangji’s death, are academic laboratories any safer? C&EN. https://cen.acs.org/safety/lab-safety/10-years-Sheri-Sangjis-death/97/i1#chemjobber
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). 1910.1450 – Occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories. United States Department of Labor. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1450