Laboratories are purpose-built environments for learning and innovation. They are the lynchpin for advancement medically and technologically, often populated with the finest minds the country can provide.
But laboratories are also dangerous environments, posing a real risk to life to visitors and workers whether new or experienced. What kind of dangers might one face in a laboratory environment? And what is the approach to health and safety under laboratory conditions?
Health Risks in Laboratories
Laboratories exist in a wide range of industries, with a wide range of differing purposes. Medical or clinical laboratories exist to facilitate the testing and diagnosis of disease within individual patients and specimens, while biosafety laboratories exist to examine dangerous pathogens and threats to human life from a research standpoint.
There are also chemistry laboratories, in which materials are produced or refined via chemical processes. Research laboratories are built by private enterprises for specific testing requirements within their business, that may incorporate engineering or physics-based research and development.
All of these laboratories present differing risks, and differing levels of risk. However, the sensitive nature of the work that goes on under laboratory conditions is shared – as is the potential overall danger to safety. Clinical and biosafety labs present the risk of exposure to dangerous contaminants or contagious disease; chemical labs contain volatile materials, from the corrosive to the poisonous.
Awareness of risk in laboratories is thankfully high, with large thanks to the continued efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – commonly known as OSHA. OSHA’s laboratory standards have paved the way for robust and uniform safety-led approaches to the laboratory environment.
These approaches extend not just to the institution of safety measures and protocol, though. They also cover the formulation of a wider ‘culture’ of safety awareness in laboratory environments. Lab workers are encouraged to look out for one another, and to actively consider the health and safety aspects of their behaviour around such sites.
Health and Safety Provisions
That said, there are some simple health and safety approaches that have specific relevance to laboratory risks. Specialist materials are used for their unique qualities to improve results and safety in one; a key example can be found in inoculation loops, which are designed to transfer microbiological samples from cultures to agar plates. Nichrome wire is used to make them, which has both heat and oxidation resistance characteristics – making their sterilization a simple process.
Specific tools and items of equipment are also built for lab-specific purposes. Fume cupboards are used for the handling of toxic and noxious materials and the safe carrying-out of related experiments and research. While prevention is the best form of protection, accidents do happen; purpose-built treatment areas provide lab-specific measures such as burns showers and eye-washing stations to remove potential contaminants.