Lab Safety Basics: Don’t Forget the Obvious

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Chemical Safety software is key to improving Lab Safety

This is the next in a series of blogs focusing on EHS technological advances that are thought and action provoking. Technological progress is exponential in every facet of our lives, at work and at home. This applies to Environmental Compliance and Safety at the lab as much as any other industry.

The majority of accidents in the workplace occur in the laboratory where more than half a million workers are employed across the U.S. today. Most of them are exposed to a variety of hazards which can be chemical, biological, physical, or radioactive in nature. Surprisingly, in spite of advances in information technology and strong regulatory focus, it sometimes seems that we haven’t made many strides since Alfred Nobel lost his brother while experimenting with nitroglycerine in 1864.

There is still an overabundance of sometimes fatal laboratory accidents that are caused by basic neglect in following fundamental protocols and precautions. Academic lab accidents occur with much more frequency than those in chemical plants. In spite of being the focus by local, state, and federal agencies, serious lab mishaps continue to occur. This includes a number of student accidents, some of which have ended tragically on university campuses nationwide.

There are five federal agencies that are principally tasked with ensuring lab safety:

While many organizations consider their laboratory environments safe, many are unknowingly engaging in unsafe practices.

Common causes of incidents and accidents include:

  • Insufficient training
  • Lack of proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • Improper handling and use of chemicals
  • Unsafe storage of incompatible chemicals
  • Inappropriate disposal of chemicals
  • Failure to perform root cause analyses and mitigate the cause of incidents
  • Being reactive rather than proactive in managing lab safety

This September, in a further attempt to improve safety, the FDA announced it will be appointing a top safety official and implementing new agency-wide training and specimen inventory by 2016.

Lab Safety begins with a functional lab safety plan and excellent recordkeeping. Today’s technologies, including Chemical Safety’s Environmental Management Systems (EMS Software) for lab safety and Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) management, offer well-designed, easy to manage tools that track chemical acquisition, storage, use and disposal of chemicals and other hazardous materials and the individuals that work with, or around those chemicals.

In my opinion, the Achilles heel of lab safety management is the disparity of information collection and sharing due to decentralized data management. Information that can be shared by everyone, and can be accessed, updated, and reported easily can improve lab operations, reduce costs at all levels, and ultimately protect life and property.

An effective Environmental Health and Safety software system manages the entire chemical lifecycle, from acquisition to distribution, storage, use and waste disposal of chemicals and other hazardous materials. This must include immediate access to safety information for the proper handling, storage, labeling and emergency response of all hazardous materials at the lab. In addition, it should also provide tools for chemical sharing (which reduces chemical inventory sizes and cost), greener chemical alternative options (which improve safety and often reduce cost), waste reduction (which reduces risk and lowers disposal costs) and accurate environmental regulatory reporting (which makes our lab work life easier!).

At the ground level, it is the employer and/or lab manager who is ultimately responsible for the safety of its laboratories and workers. This point was made clear when criminal charges were brought against both UCLA and its chemistry professor in 2009 when a young research assistant died from sustained lab injuries. It is the employer’s responsibility to maintain an accurate chemical inventory together with an SDS sheet for each chemical, keep in compliance within all levels of enforced regulations, and be prepared with access to current data for required audits and inspections. Many entities choose COTS (Customizable-Off-The-Shelf) software systems to facilitate the aforementioned. Chemical Safety’s EMS Software addresses all aspects of chemical inventory management efficiently and reduces potential hazards with additional features such as chemical storage planning, compatibility rules based storage with system alerts, GHS labeling, barcode scanning and Smartphone iPhone/iPad application support.

Although accidents will inevitably happen, the proper tools and guidance can help reduce them and ensure the same mistakes do not have to happen twice.

One last thing, which is probably the most important: Enterprise-level Software for lab safety is available at a low-monthly cost under the EMS SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) model, where the cost of acquisition, implementation, scaling and Return-On-Investment (ROI) are manageable and measurable. There are many more benefits that SaaS offers, and I urge you to read my blog entitled 2015’s Most Important EH&S Blog Article.

I welcome your comments.

Tony Diamantidis

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