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lab safetyEarlier this month, a student at the University of Bristol’s chemistry department is reported to have accidentally made the explosive substance acetone peroxide (TATP), as a by-product of an experiment.

In this case, the risk was identified before anyone was injured and the Ministry of Defence was called to dispose of the chemical. A spokesman for the university told the Bristol Post they will look into what happened and what lessons can be learned.

Sadly, potential disasters in the lab aren’t always averted, like when a hydrogen/oxygen explosion at the University of Hawaii last year caused a postdoc researcher to lose an arm. The investigative team that looked into the incident concluded that “serious deficiencies in the institution’s approach to laboratory safety contributed to a lapse in proper risk assessment and lack of a culture of safety that ultimately led to the accident.” Now the postdoc, a UK citizen who was visiting the lab, has filed a lawsuit against the school and researchers she worked for. She alleges she was not provided with adequate safety training, or equipment.

Such incidents are a stark reminder that labs can be a dangerous place to work and safety needs to be given due attention. Our recent blog post What is the worst lab mistake you’ve ever made? is full of examples of how things can go wrong.

Recommendations from the Safe Science report

After a string of serious accidents, including fatal ones, at chemical research labs in the US, the National Research Council produced a Safe Science report in 2014. A summary of the report is available in a presentation by the report’s chairs.

The report identified a number of reasons why lab safety in academia was not on par with standards in industry. Some of the reasons included the wide range of skills and experience of the people working in academic labs. The high turnover also means knowledge is not always passed on. They found that accidents were more likely in disciplines where the researchers have less chemistry training, like biochemistry.

The report made a number of recommendations to increase lab safety. In particular, they stressed the importance of not working alone in a lab and said the practice “simply has to stop”. A Chinese post doc researcher who died in an explosion in a lab in 2015 was found to have been working in the lab alone.

The report also recommended fostering a safety culture where people could report near-miss incidents without worrying about punitive action being taken.

Some of the other recommendations included:

  • Leadership promoting safety as a core part of the culture.
  • Incentivising safety by adding it to criteria for promotion, tenures and salary decisions.
  • Removing barriers to safety, such as certain university policies.
  • Making sure the resources needed to adopt safe practices are made available.
  • Putting together a comprehensive risk management plan that includes prevention, mitigation and emergency response.
  • Identifying research that can be done safely with the resources available.
  • Documenting information and communicating lessons learned.
  • Providing initial training, as well as ongoing mentoring.
  • Collecting data on risks.

Health and safety bodies and resources

If you need help with enhancing safety in your lab, there are a number of organisations which offer resources, training and guidance. 

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) in the US has a range of information on lab safety.
  • The Health and Safety Executive in the UK has information on staying safe when working with chemicals and offers guidance on COSHH assessments.
  • The Royal Society of Chemistry has a database on health and safety essentials, including information on working alone, or out of hours.
  • The University of California (UCLA) has a series of useful health and safety resources.

Using safe lab equipment

Keeping equipment well maintained and replacing any that is too old is also important for safety. You also need to make sure you are choosing the right equipment for your experiment.

At Radleys, we have a number of pieces of equipment that offer outstanding lab safety, such as: 

  • Heat-on blocks - the safest and cleanest way to heat round bottom flasks. Replacing oil baths removes the risk of oil fires, spills and burns.
  • StarFish Work Station also reduces the risk of accidents by eliminating the need to use oil baths.
  • Findenser eliminates the risk of flooding, as it doesn't need running water.
  • AVA Control Software makes unattended chemistry safer by allowing you to set safety limits, so the device is automatically put into a safe state if the limits are reached.