5 Safety Tips When Working With Lab Equipment

When your work could result in explosions, there are a few safety rules to consider — OK, a lot of safety rules. Lab equipment safety is a top concern for any type of lab, whether you're working in a university, a biotechnology company, a medical facility or somewhere else. You probably know not to drink any chemicals, but many types of equipment have unique safety practices you'll need to know and follow. To help, we've put together a full list of lab safety tips so you or your personnel can go forth and work safely.

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1. Follow General Lab Safety Guidelines

For starters, you'll need to make sure you follow all the basic rules that anyone entering the lab needs to know:

  • Don't eat or drink in the lab — take your lunch to the break room.
  • Know where all safety equipment is, including safety showers, fire extinguishers and circuit breakers.
  • Dispose of lab waste properly — know whether a chemical can go down the drain, if you need to use biohazard or sharps containers, etc.
  • Understand what you're working with. Don't mix unknown chemicals, and if you don't know how toxic a chemical is, assume it is dangerous and use extensive precautions.
  • Dress for the lab. Keep long hair pulled back, wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and don't wear any jewelry, shorts, contact lenses or open-toed shoes. If there is a fire hazard, such as flammable liquids, do not wear synthetic materials, which can melt and stick to exposed skin.
  • Avoid all skin and eye contact with chemicals. Wear lab coats or other long-sleeved clothing. 
  • Always wash up before leaving and keep your lab coat in the lab, as bringing it to another location, such as an office or break room, could lead to cross-contamination.
  • Try not to startle anyone working in the lab and don't get rambunctious.
  • Report any incidents to the lab supervisor, no matter how small they may seem.

2. Maintain a Safe Lab Environment

Everyone has a role to play in keeping the lab safe. Administrators or managers should establish robust policies, procedures and educational practices to ensure the lab is well-designed and all workers understand the hazards involved in working with its equipment. Some concerns include:

  • Inspection and maintenance: All equipment and PPE should be inspected and maintained — with all logs retained — according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Be especially vigilant if you're working with old lab instruments. If there's a problem, follow lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures, both to improve safety and abide by standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Tagout involves placing a clear warning on the equipment, while lockout places physical controls on it to prevent the unexpected startup of equipment or an otherwise hazardous release of energy during service and maintenance.
  • Guard and shield placement: Shields and guards are the first line of defense for a range of hazards. They must be in place to prevent access to electrical components or moving parts and wherever explosion or implosion risks are present. These situations might include putting glassware under pressure or when attempting a reaction for the first time. 
  • Signage and labels: Place specific hazard signs and warnings where necessary and ensure proper labeling practices of all substances. Lab personnel must be aware of different hazard icons and precautions.
  • Strength in numbers: Workers should always use the buddy system when performing hazardous procedures.
  • Information access: Workers must be able to access all relevant documentation, including Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), chemical inventory lists, safety manuals and standard operating procedures (SOPs).
  • Exposure limits: Like any workplace, labs must observe permissible exposure limits (PELs) and Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) to keep employees from exceeding safe limits.

Creating a safe lab involves close collaboration between lab supervisors and personnel. Everyone needs to be aware of the hazards and procedures required, for their safety and those around them.

3. Plan Ahead

Before you start any procedures, you'll need to know the plan. Gather all of your tools, PPE and chemicals and read up on the procedure and SDS. If chemicals need to be transported from outside of the lab, keep them away from other substances and individuals. Use secondary containers where necessary and take a freight elevator or an empty passenger elevator to keep your distance from non-lab personnel.

Take some time to make sure the lab is well-ventilated and all equipment is working properly. If needed, post a warning at the lab entrance to alert people that they're entering a hazardous area.

5 Safety Tips When Working With Lab Equipment

4. Handle Glassware Appropriately

Glassware is ideal for lab work, but it can also cause injuries if you're not careful. Stick to high-quality borosilicate glassware for most applications, except for those involving ultraviolet light or other types of light. Borosilicate glass has an added 5% of boric oxide that makes it much more resistant to corrosion and thermal shock. But it isn't tempered glass and is still likely to break if dropped or knocked around. Never use damaged glass and be careful during handling to keep it in good condition.

Always use hand protection if you're cleaning up broken glass or working with glass hose connections or tubing. If you're working with a vacuum-jacketed glass apparatus, use extreme caution and make sure your glassware is designed for vacuum work.

5. Know Your Hazards

Depending on what kind of equipment you're working with, you might be dealing with a wide range of hazards. Pay close attention to the risks you're dealing with and take the appropriate precautions. We've outlined some safety considerations for different types of equipment and hazards.

5 Safety Tips When Working With Lab Equipment

General Electrical Hazards

Two of the primary concerns regarding electrical equipment include shocks and flammability.

Even low-voltage equipment shocks can be dangerous, with the potential for electrocution and burns. To reduce shock risk, make sure plugs and cords are included in everyday inspections and your wiring abides by safety requirements for your application. 

Any areas where flammable vapor-air mixtures are likely to accumulate — such as specially designated labs or cold rooms — should have certified explosion-proof equipment and wiring. This requirement covers both heavy-duty equipment and minor installations, like light switches. All wiring and equipment must comply with the National Electrical Code (NEC), and all switches and circuit breakers should be labeled.

All lab workers must be well-trained on how to handle electrical incidents. You should know how to shut off equipment or entire circuits in case of emergency. If a worker comes in contact with an energized device, such as a live wire, either turn off the current directly or use a non-conductive material, such as non-conducting gloves, to move the victim away from the source of the current.

When it comes to placing your equipment, consider the potential for condensation and spills. For example, avoid placing equipment next to safety showers. In cold rooms, mount equipment to the walls or vertical panels to limit condensation.

Since lab environments can involve flammable vapors, electrical equipment must have certain design features to avoid ignition. To prevent spark and fire risk, do not use equipment that has series-wound motors with carbon brushes when flammable vapors are present. Lab equipment typically uses induction motors, but you can find series-wound motors in some consumer electronics, like blenders and power tools. These motors can create sparks that can ignite the vapors.

Lastly, try to avoid using extension cords wherever possible. If necessary, make sure the size of the cord plugged in is less than the wire gauge of the extension cord. Keep all wires as short as possible to avoid tripping hazards.

Static Electricity

Various activities generate static electricity, like operating equipment, pouring liquids and simply moving around. Static causes charged electrons to gather on the surface of an object and can be discharged to another object, potentially causing shock, fire or explosions in the process, especially if flammable vapors are involved.

Personnel are common sources of electrostatic discharge, so all lab workers should be familiar with preventing electrostatic buildup and discharge. A simple way to do so is to wear anti-static PPE, like lab coats, wrist straps and shoe straps. You can also add grounding straps to machinery, make contact with a grounded water pipe or place anti-static materials around the lab, like floor mats and container covers.

Since dry air contributes to static electricity, it tends to be more of a risk in the winter, but a strong air conditioner can also dry out the air in the summer. Use a humidifier in the lab when possible to keep the risk of static shock low.

Cryogenic Hazards

If you're working with cold traps or other cryogenic applications, you'll need to be careful of burns — even if that sounds like an oxymoron. Here are some tips for working with cryogenic materials:

  • Use PPE and other protection to prevent cold objects from contacting the skin, including dry ice and the surfaces it has cooled.
  • When adding dry ice to liquid cooling baths, lower it slowly to prevent it from foaming over.
  • Do not lower your face into a container of dry ice, as carbon dioxide is heavier than air and can cause suffocation. 
  • Don't use liquid nitrogen or liquid air to cool a flammable mixture in the presence of oxygen, which can condense from the air and create the risk of explosion.

Equipment-Specific Hazards

Equipment-Specific Hazards

Whatever equipment you use in your lab, be sure to thoroughly read the documentation from the manufacturer to understand hazards specific to the machine. Still, there are common concerns to keep in mind. Below are some things to consider when working with certain types of equipment:

  • Pressurized systems: Unless the system is built and thoroughly tested to withstand pressure, never conduct reactions or apply heat to a closed-system apparatus. A pressurized apparatus has a relief device. If you cannot release the reaction directly to the air, keep pressure to a minimum with an inert gas purge and bubbler system. Always use proper shielding in pressurized systems.
  • Centrifuges: If the unit is unbalanced, the rotors can become unbalanced during operation, sending themselves and the tubes flying. Your centrifuge should be properly anchored and always balanced before use. Keep the lid closed and monitor the unit until it reaches full operating speed. If it appears to vibrate, stop the equipment and check the load balances. You'll also want to keep the centrifuge in a location where vibration wouldn't cause other equipment, like bottles sitting on a table, to fall over.
  • Drying ovens and furnaces: Ovens and furnaces can't typically safely discharge volatile substances, so users must prevent them from releasing into the atmosphere in high concentrations or creating explosive mixtures with the air inside. Never use household ovens, which don't have separated heating elements and could spark from volatile substances inside. Don't use ovens to dry chemical samples with moderate or higher levels of volatility unless the oven has a continuous venting system. If using ovens to dry glassware, make sure it hasn't been rinsed with an organic solvent. If so, rinse it with distilled water.
  • Heating devices: Electric heating devices, like hot plates, heating mantles and hot-tube furnaces, can present spark or shock hazards. Wherever possible, opt for steam-heating devices instead. Keep your work area clean to avoid other materials coming into contact with the heating source.
  • Vacuum pumps: Vacuum work can create risks of implosion and the buildup of hazardous materials. Keep glassware behind a shield. If you're working with volatile substances, use a cold trap with the input line to your pump to reduce the amount of volatile material that enters the pump. Vent any volatile, toxic or corrosive materials into a hood or other air exhaust system.
  • Refrigerators: Like ovens, the atmosphere in a refrigerator can build up dangerously high concentrations of vapor. Since vapor can't vent to the environment, take care with what goes into a lab refrigerator. Don't place highly toxic substances inside one, and keep all containers sealed with vapor-tight caps. Use the right refrigerator for your work. Lab-safe refrigerators are designed for flammable or explosive materials. For materials with lower flashpoints, you'll need an explosion-proof refrigerator with appropriate certifications. All refrigerators should have heavy-duty cords and their own circuit breakers.
  • Desiccator: Do not move or carry an evacuated desiccator, and be careful as you open the valve to avoid spraying. Surround your desiccator with friction tape or shields to contain any flying particles.
  • Rotary evaporators: Similarly, enclose rotary evaporators in a shield and tape over the components to keep any flying glass at bay. When operating the equipment, slowly ramp up your rotation speed and the application of vacuum.

Start With Trustworthy Equipment

We probably don't need to tell you twice how hazardous a lab environment can be. While there are many factors that go into lab equipment safety, one of the most important is using quality equipment. At New Life Scientific, we make it easier to get your hands on equipment from trusted manufacturers at affordable prices. Plus, much of our lab equipment is backed by our warranty and team of experienced technicians.

Whether you're looking to replace dangerous and out-of-date equipment or simply add some new capabilities to your lab, we can help you find the right equipment for building a safer workspace. Explore our equipment online, or reach out to us to chat with a knowledgeable representative!

Start With Trustworthy Equipment