Good rules of thumb for chemical handling and storage in the lab
If there is anything that all laboratories have it is bottles and bottles of chemicals. Forensic laboratories are no exception. If we are not diligent in properly handling and storing these hazardous substances, problems are sure to arise. Potential problems run the gamut from minor inconvenience to life threateningly serious. Keep reading to learn how to avoid mishaps from mishandled chemicals.
Previous Safety Guys articles have laid a foundation for managing chemicals in laboratories. These covered understanding the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) hazard diamond, how to decipher material safety data sheets, and constructing a proper chemical inventory for the lab. In this column we provide general safety rules of thumb for handling and storing chemicals in the laboratory.
Aside from the ubiquitous fire codes, many federal, state, and local regulations have specific requirements that affect handling and storing chemicals in labs and stockrooms. Examples include controlled substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency, consumable alcohols covered by the Food and Drug Administration, radioactive substances controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and hazardous wastes governed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Requirements range from locked storage cabinets and specific waste containers to secured access for “regulated” areas. Make sure you know which regulations apply and what the specific requirements are for all special chemicals and wastes at your facility.
A more common scenario is applicability of state and/or local building codes, which are becoming more rigorous each year. Hopefully these were identified and attended to during design and construction; but, we all know that labs evolve and change over time within the facility. And, unfortunately the state fire marshal and local codes inspectors are not shy about pointing out were we have crossed the line.
First things first: proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
Before we start grabbing bottles of chemicals and moving them around we need make sure we have the proper PPE. At a minimum this would include appropriate chemical resistant gloves and eye protection. Closed toe shoes are a definite and considered a general requirement for working in any laboratory. Use lab coats or chemical aprons when moving liquids and when required by your laboratory’s safety policy.
We have covered PPE, but before we begin re-arranging chemical containers in the laboratory there are a couple more things to organize and take note of. First, survey your surroundings and take note of any potential tripping hazards and work stations where others are busy. Make sure exits, passageways, and emergency equipment areas (i.e. eyewash and safety showers) are clear and free of stored materials. Locate and have close at hand a full spill kit with appropriate absorbent materials, neutralizing agents, clean up utensils, and waste containers. Finally, check that all chemical containers have complete labels in good condition and that safety data sheets are readily available.
Tips for safe transportation
Here are a few pointers for moving chemicals safely:
- First, never move visibly degrading chemicals and containers. Report these to your lab supervisor.
- Whenever transporting chemicals, place bottles in appropriate leak-proof secondary containers to protect against breakage and spillage. A good example is using a special plastic tote for carrying four-liter glass bottles of corrosives or solvents.
- When moving multiple, large, or heavy containers use sturdy carts. Ensure the cart wheels are large enough to roll over uneven surfaces without tipping or stopping suddenly. If carts are used for secondary containment make sure the trays are liquid-tight and have sufficient lips on all four sides.
- Do not transport chemicals during busy times such as break times, lunch periods, or class changes (for those academic forensic laboratories).
- Use freight elevators for moving hazardous chemicals whenever possible to avoid potential incidents on crowded passenger elevators. Remember to remove gloves when pushing elevator buttons or opening doors.
- Never leave chemicals unattended.