Science and Safety: Understanding Laboratory Hazards

a woman working in a laboratory

Safely working in a laboratory requires adequate knowledge of the hazardous materials stored within. It follows, therefore, that it’s also important to take proper care of the equipment used to handle these. A thorough clean and regular maintenance of the laboratory equipment are essential to avoid mistakes and accidents.

Cleaning laboratory equipment involves more than washing it with soap and tap water, particularly with the glassware used for chemicals or biological materials. Using deionised water, pipe cleaning brushes and solvents, such as ethanol and acetone, to clean the glassware ensures that it’s free of any hazardous residue.

Chemical Hazards

The list of hazardous chemicals is extensive. They include toxins like mercury and formaldehyde; corrosives, such as acetic acid; flammables like methanol; and reactive substances, such as nitric acid and sodium metal. Hazardous chemicals can enter the body in many ways, though the most common entry routes are inhalation and skin or eye contact. The effects of a single, short exposure to hazardous chemicals are often reversible. Chronic exposure to harmful chemicals can cause gradual or delayed adverse effects that may be irreversible, though.

The type of chemical, length of exposure and route of entry are all factors that determine how a person will be affected. Take note, the toxic effects of the combination of two chemical hazards may be greater than the effect of exposure to either of the chemicals on its own. For instance, accidentally mixing hydrogen chloride with residual formaldehyde on glassware can produce a deadly carcinogen.

Biological Hazards

Biological materials, such as plant, animal, human, bacteria and virus samples, are some examples of biological hazards commonly used in research for diseases and treatments. All laboratory procedures involving microorganisms and pathogens pose large risks. Cross-contamination, whether due to improper handling of the biological samples or dirty equipment, not only leads to erroneous results but also incorrectly synthesised treatments.

Laboratory workers accidentally exposed to biological agents may experience mild effects, such as skin irritation, or be infected with serious diseases like tuberculosis or AIDs.

Chemical and biological hazards are only two of the most common types of laboratory hazards — there are also physical hazards, radiation hazards and electrical hazards. Working in a laboratory environment requires proper knowledge of the safety practices, handling procedures and maintenance of the chemicals, samples and equipment.