Complex and sophisticated, laboratories and cleanrooms have unique requirements to protect the integrity of the working environment. Assuring predictable results and guarding against contamination are two top priorities when working in these types of conditions. As such, the lab is a workplace that presents a variety of safety and health challenges for workers.

While labs should strive to do everything possible to protect workers via engineering controls and by eliminating hazards, the fact remains that workers will still need to don and use personal protective equipment (PPE). And while there may not be absolutes to PPE usage in labs, OSHA's standard on personal protective equipment, 29CFR 1910.132, Subpart I, imposes several requirements relating to basic safety and health programs.

At the Environmental Health and Safety Department at Oklahoma State University, where a variety of EH&S programs and services are offered, a number of good, sound rules are in place regarding the use of PPE in labs. By heeding OSU's safety suggestions, you can help protect your laboratory workers from serious harm from chemicals and other associated hazards.

The eyes have it

To begin with, OSU makes eye protection mandatory in any area where there is potential for injury. The type of eye protection required depends on the hazard. For most situations in a lab, safety glasses with side shields should suffice.

But when there is a danger of splashing chemicals, goggles should be required. In operations involving corrosive liquids or flying particles, including washing glassware in chromic acid solution, grinding materials or using glassware that could explode or break, goggles or face shields should be worn to protect the entire face and throat. In more hazardous operations, such as conducting potentially explosive reactions, or mixing strong caustics or acids, a face shield or a combination of face shield and safety goggles or glasses is recommended.

Despite taking precautions, splashes of corrosive liquid in an employee's eye can and do occur. If this happens, the OSU EH&S Department urges the employee to get to the nearest eyewash fountain and flush the eyes with water for at least 15 to 30 minutes, flushing from the eye outward. A co-worker, in the meantime, should notify the proper authorities.

Dress appropriately

When it comes to laboratory clothing, there are several safety guidelines that should be put into practice, according to the folks at OSU. First of all, loose or torn clothing, with the exception of a lab coat, should be avoided. The same can be said for dangling jewelry. Hazards that can result from these precarious items include entanglement in machinery or the potential for ignition or absorption.

Tight-fitting jewelry or finger rings can also be the source of another potential problem in the lab. These items, which should be avoided, can allow corrosive or irritating liquids to get trapped underneath of them and irritate the skin.

Lab coats should be provided for protection and convenience. They should be worn at all times in the lab areas. Since lab coats can absorb and accumulate chemicals, they should not be worn in the lunchroom or elsewhere outside the laboratory.

Another tip regarding lab coats, says safety and health consultant Robert Myers, CSP, of Myers Safety Consultants, LLC: They should be buttoned up when handling chemicals. "Otherwise a spill can contaminate the person's 'street' clothing underneath," says Myers, a 26-year safety industry veteran who has fire and safety engineering degrees from Oklahoma State. "In addition, depending on the hazard potential, lab coats may need to be flame resistant or made of a chemical-resistant material to provide the wearer adequate protection."

Some operations in the laboratory, like washing glassware, require handling large quantities of corrosive liquids in open containers. Plastic or rubber aprons can be supplied to protect clothing in such cases.

In good hands

Gloves are obviously a major part of PPE when working in labs. When choosing a glove, consider the properties of both the glove material and the chemical with which it is to be used. Some of these properties, according to OSU EH&S, include:

  • permeability of the glove material;
  • breakthrough time of the chemical;
  • temperature of the chemical;
  • thickness of the glove material; and
  • the amount of the chemical that can be absorbed by the glove material.

For concentrated acids and alkalis as well as organic solvents, OSU EH&S recommends natural rubber, neoprene or nitrile gloves. For handling hot objects, gloves made of heat-resistant materials such as leather would be the choice. Insulated gloves are in order when handling very cold objects.

Latex gloves, often used in laboratory environments, are known to be capable of spreading allergies to the wearer and others. One way to deal with latex allergies, says Myers, is to simply not allow latex in labs where employees who suffer from latex allergies work or visit. This requires that a warning sign be placed on the door.

"There are plenty of good substitute gloves available, made from other materials that will do the job and allow for a good grip, dexterity and even better protection from chemical contamination," Myers suggests, "but sometimes that can be a hard sell to a lab person who has always used latex."

Of course, matching the right glove type to the specific job for compatibility and breakthrough characteristics can be challenging. Associations like the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) with its "Guidelines for the Selection of Chemical Protective Clothing" can offer assistance. Glove manufacturers, too, are willing and knowledgeable sources for choosing the right glove. Online tools like Ansell's SpecWareR and Best Manufacturing's Glove Chemical Resistance Guide enable users to quickly sort through hundreds of industrial chemicals and mixtures to identify recommended hand protection.

OSU suggests always rinsing gloves with a compatible solvent, soap and water prior to handling wash bottles or other laboratory fixtures. Before removing the gloves, they should be washed, and employees should remove them before leaving the work area.

Breathing easy

Ideally, respirators shouldn't be needed in labs. Engineering controls, such as good fume hoods and proper procedures, should be utilized to minimize exposure. If respirators are worn because OSHA permissible exposure limits are being exceeded or for other reasons, OSU EH&S says a respirator program must be established in accordance with OSHA 29CFR 1910.134.

Myers says that most respirators found in labs are rarely used, if ever, and lab technicians keep them on hand "just in case." A lot of respirators in labs, he says, are inappropriate for the application. For example, a respirator may include a dust mask even though no dust is generated or powders used in the lab. "This happens because more and more companies are allowing their employees to make direct purchases from suppliers and not restricting or monitoring their purchases," says Myers.

So if you're a respiratory protection program administrator, be sure you're aware of what types of respiratory equipment - if any - exist in labs.

SIDEBAR: 12 tips for a safe lab

1 - Have a written EH&S policy statement.

2 - Organize a departmental EH&S committee that will meet regularly.

3 - Develop an EH&S orientation for all new employees.

4 - Give each employee some specific safety responsibilities.

5 - Conduct periodic, unannounced lab inspections to identify and correct hazardous conditions and unsafe practices.

6 - Forbid working alone in a lab and working without a staff member knowing it.

7 - Don't let experiments run unattended unless they are failsafe.

8 - Allow only minimal amounts of flammable liquids in each lab.

9 - Forbid smoking, eating and drinking in the lab.

10 - Develop plans and conduct drills for dealing with emergencies.

11 - Store acids and bases separately; store fuels and oxidizers separately.

12 - Maintain a chemical inventory.

Source: Kaufman & Associates, Laboratory Safety Consultants