Biotech safety has some unique challenges. Research is an ongoing integral part of the biotech business, and scientists and laboratory technicians doing the research often work with hazardous materials and are at risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens. Lab personnel are unique also in that they often work alone or with only one or two other people.

Besides research, most biotech facilities have an extensive quality department, a unit which ensures that all research and production follows government regulations. Then there is the production department itself, which, similar to the research department, requires an enormous amount of data input since biotech companies must adhere to government standards; documentation plays a major role.

If you are the sole environmental health and safety person at a biotech company or are part of a management team that shares the responsibility, the multitude of challenges can be overwhelming. In order to reduce injuries and provide a safe and healthy workplace, it is essential to recruit help from the workforce through use of safety committees and employee teams.

Let's look at six primary areas of biotech safety that require attention.

1) Environmental

Environmental issues for a biotech company deal with hazardous waste, biohazard waste, and air and water permits. Hazardous waste comes primarily from used chemicals from the analyzing equipment and outdated chemicals. Biohazard waste comes into play if the process requires the handling of blood or research animals.

The proper handling, labeling and storage of both hazardous and biohazardous waste is vital. Although the regulations can be hard to decipher, the Web pages of the government agencies controlling these areas can provide you with all the basic rules.

Air and water permits will need to be prepared and submitted to the proper agencies. These types of permits can sometimes be straightforward and handled in-house, or you may be involved in a jurisdiction that requires extensive permitting. In that case, you will need to hire a consultant. Some permits can be a real challenge.

2) Industrial hygiene

Both respiratory protection and air monitoring require outside resources. If you don't have access to an industrial hygienist you'll need to hire a consultant to do air monitoring in areas where vapors may be present.

If the results of the air monitoring find that respiratory protection is needed you will be required to fit-test and train those employees who will be required to wear the protection. Most respirator suppliers can train a few of your employees so that they can be qualified to do respirator fit-testing for other employees. Any employees who need respirators are required to be trained and fit-tested.

3) The workforce

Getting scientists and lab personnel to take safety seriously can be difficult since they're so familiar with the chemicals they work with - even though they know the chemicals are hazardous.

A great way to get lab personnel involved in safety is to have them do their own hazard analysis. For example, every time I entered the lab I had to remind Mark, one of the technicians, to put on his safety glasses and to roll down the sleeves on his lab coat. Because reminders weren't working I asked Mark to help me do a couple of hazard analyses on two different laboratory tasks. One task was a titration and the other was the refilling of the analytical chemical bottles.

Mark started by identifying the hazards involved if the chemical got on your skin or in your eyes. After identifying the chemicals, we had to list the personal protective equipment (PPE) that was needed to protect the technician from the chemicals. Mark immediately identified the lab coat, safety glasses with side shields, and gloves as required PPE. It wasn't long before he started using the PPE more often, and eventually he wore his glasses and kept his lab coat sleeves rolled down all the time.

Getting scientists and lab technicians involved in hazard analyses, safety inspections and procedure writing will make your job easier and get them to work safely.

4) Chemicals

Keeping a chemical list and material safety data sheet (MSDS) books up-to-date is critical in a biotech facility, particularly if there is a research department, in which case there can be as many as 2,000 or more chemicals on hand at any one time.

A good chemical inventory starts by doing a hand inventory of every chemical and matching the MSDS books to that list. Then, employees must be trained on a procedure that both tracks the existing chemicals and controls the purchase of new chemicals. Each time a person orders a chemical, he will have to check the list to make sure it is one that has been approved before. If it hasn't been approved, approval must be obtained from the safety department. This enables the safety department to assure that the chemical is allowed at the facility and that it is added to the chemical inventory along with an MSDS.

Even items like cans of spray paint or the janitor's cleaning supplies should be accounted for.

5) Bloodborne pathogens

Many biotech companies work with blood, from both humans and/or research animals, so a bloodborne pathogen program is imperative. Unfortunately, research people handling blood can often become complacent to the hazards. Although employees will wear gloves when handling blood, they usually don't identify the exposure risk of their eyes and mouth. This is because when you are exposed to bloodborne pathogens nothing happens immediately. It is not like burning your finger on a stove where the pain is felt right away. Because the consequence of illness is not immediate, the average worker fails to recognize the seriousness of bloodborne pathogens.

Many times bloodborne pathogen training consists of a film and a handout. Make the training more practical. Have a doctor visit the training class to share his experience with bloodborne diseases. This will heighten awareness.

6) Ergonomics

At a biotech company, every change to every procedure needs to be verified and reviewed by several parties, updated and then reviewed again. Any recipe changes to a product goes through the same type of document verification. The research documentation will also be tracked and all changes verified.

You can imagine the amount of computer data input this entails. Consequently, ergonomic training and the case management of ergonomic injuries becomes crucial to a safety program.

Other ergonomic hazards in a laboratory include pipetting of liquid into sample beakers, which can cause a strain to the wrist and fingers. Some pipetting is done with a syringe type bulb, which is pumped by hand and then slowly released as the pipette drains. Automatic pipette machines can eliminate this hazard.

Yes, biotech safety is a challenge, but it can be accomplished. Whether you are a one-man safety department or a team of managers sharing the responsibility, keep your focus on reducing injuries and illnesses and the other items will fall into place.

SIDEBAR: Tracking the data

A detailed spreadsheet is a great resource for your chemical inventory. The following data should be tracked:

  • Chemical name
  • CAS number
  • Supplier
  • MSDS on site
  • Department where used
  • Quantity measurement (gallons, pounds, liters, grams)
  • Type of container (bottle, drum, vessel)
  • Latest inventory amount
  • Average amount on hand
  • Date of purchase
  • Expiration date