Special Hazards

Though the hazards in research laboratories vary widely, there are a number of types of work that present unique hazards that require special training as the hazards may present severe consequences not only to the researcher doing the work but to all those around him/her as well. Some of these hazards which are discussed on the linked webpages include:

Electricity

Due to the increasingly instrumental nature of laboratory research today, many devices and instruments are electrically powered. Some devices such as lasers, power supplies, and vacuum pumps can pose serious safety hazards even death if used improperly. Consequently, it is critical to obtain training in the proper use of these devices and instruments before you begin to use them in your research.

  • Always keep one hand at your side when working with high voltage devices such as power supplies, lasers, and electrophoresis equipment.
  • Turning the "on/off" switch off doesn't necessarily mean that an electrical device doesn't have the potential to harm you. Be sure to discharge large capacitors before you work with power supplies and other high voltage devices.
  • Wear rubber gloves when you work with high voltage devices.
  • Don't work with any electrical device using wet hands.
  • Don't use any instrumentation that has frayed or split electrical cords.
  • Make sure that you know where the electrical circuit breakers for your research laboratory in case you need to turn the electricity off for any reason.
  • Be sure that all high voltage devices are properly grounded. Generally this means using devices equipped with three prong electrical plugs. The third prong is intended to provide a path to ground. However, it is important.

Centrifuge

When operated properly, today's centrifuges are very safe and reliable devices. Some useful general guidelines regarding their proper use follow:

  • Be sure to properly balance your load in the centrifuge.
  • Lock down the cover of the centrifuge before turning it on.
  • Never leave a centrifuge unattended while it is running.
  • Don't attempt to open the centrifuge until it has completely stopped. Most modern centrifuges have interlocks preventing users from doing this.
  • Never disarm the interlock for any reason. It is there for your protection.

Autoclave

Autoclaves use very hot, pressurized steam to sterilize biological samples and materials. Consequently, they present several different potentially serious hazards to users including scalding, biohazard contamination, and explosions. Therefore, it is very important to obtain safety training before using an autoclave in your research. Useful general guidelines for use of an autoclave follow:

  • Locate and thoroughly read through the instructor's manual for the make and model of autoclave that you will use before you begin your work.
  • Wear lab glasses and/or goggles, a lab coat, and heat-resistant gloves when working with an autoclave.
  • Do not place sharps or other pointed materials freely inside an autoclave bag but instead place them in a sharps or other solid container.
  • Do not overfill autoclave bags and/or the autoclave as this may lead to incomplete decontamination of the autoclave contents.
  • Never attempt to autoclave flammable or volatile solvents as they represent a serious explosion hazard.
  • Never leave an autoclave unattended while it is in operation.
  • If an accidental release or spill takes place inside the autoclave, wait until the autoclave is cool before attempting to clean up the spill.

Glassware

  • Always inspect your glassware before beginning a new experiment for cracks.
  • Wear safety glasses and/or goggles when working with glassware as there is always the potential that it may shatter.
  • If you drop and break a piece of glassware, don't attempt to pick up the broken pieces with your bare hands. Instead use a broom to sweep the broken pieces into a dustpan and dispose of the pieces in a broken glass container.
  • If you need to cut a piece of glass tubing, place the piece of tubing on a flat surface and score it evenly and deeply using a good file or glassware cutter. Moisten the cut with water and turn the tubing over so the scored side is away from you. Place a paper towel over the tubing, place your thumbs on opposite sides of the scored section and gently tap the piece of tubing with the blunt end of the file or tubing cutter. Be sure to fire polish the ends of the tubing to remove any jagged or sharp edges.

Compressed Gas

Compressed gases are gases stored under pressure in a metal cylinder. Small cylinders are often referred to as lecture bottles. The pressure of a gas in a cylinder is typically expressed in kilopascal or pounds per square inch (psig).

There are three kinds of compressed gases:

Liquified gases are gases that become liquids at room temperature when compressed at high pressure in a cylinder. Carbon dioxide is an example of a commonly used liquefied gas.

Non-liquified gases are gases that remain gases at room temperature even at high pressure. Examples of frequently used non-liquified gases are nitrogen, argon, and oxygen.

Dissolved gases are gases that are dissolved in a volatile solvent in order to stabilize them. Acetylene is a good example of a dissolved gas. It is usually dissolved in acetone.

Compressed gases present a wide range of significant potential safety hazards. Some compressed gases such as hydrogen chloride or ammonia are highly corrosive. Others such as hydrogen or acetylene are highly reactive and/or flammable. Even inert gases such as nitrogen can be dangerous because in confined areas their rapid release may displace enough oxygen causing loss of consciousness and asphyxiation. Research and know the chemical and toxicological properties and safety precautions before working with any compressed gas. Be sure to consult your Office of Environmental Health and Safety in advance concerning the correct handling and storage procedures peculiar to the gas with which you will work.

Identification of Compressed Gases

Tanks are color coded to facilitate ready identification of gas contents. However, you should never rely on the tank color for identification as the color coding is not standardized and may vary from supplier to supplier. Always read the label on the tank before use. Do not attempt to use a gas tank which does not have a written label of identification for any reason.

Regulators

Regulators are gas specific. Be sure to use the proper regulator for the gas tank you are using. The regulator should be securely attached to the tank using a crescent wrench. The threading on the regulator should never be wrapped with Teflon tape. This is particularly important in the case of oxidizing gases due to concern regarding flammability but it is forbidden in general with any type of gas because small pieces of teflon could get caught int the regulator potentially causing a failure. Two stage regulators are commonly used in most laboratories when working with compressed gases. The gauge closest to the tank itself is the main gauge. This gauge provides a reading of the total pressure of the gas in the tank. The primary stage should be kept closed whenever the gas tank is not actually in use - never leave a gas cylinder that is use unattended. The second stage allows careful control and release of a lower constant pressure of gas. The reading on the second gauge provides an indication of the actual pressure of the gas being released from the tank. Note that when the gauge reads zero, there is still likely some gas present in the tank.

Flammable and/or Reactive Gases

Cylinders containing flammable and/or reactive gases should be stored and used in well-ventilated areas and should never be operated in the vicinity of open flames or electrical devices capable of sparking. The regulators on these cylinders should be regularly inspected for leaks using snoop or gas leak detectors.

Storage of Gas Cylinders

Cylinders and lecture bottles should always be secured using sturdy metal chains and/or straps to a wall or a cart to prevent their falling over.

Transportation of Gas Cylinders

Gas cylinders should always be transported using an appropriate wheeled gas transport cart. Gas cylinders should never be rolled, spun, twirled, or dragged. Before transportation, the gas regulator should always be removed. The main valve on the tank should be completely closed and the cap should be screwed on the tank. A minimum number of gas tanks should be transported using the cart at any one time.

Lasers

Lasers produce intense focused monochromatic beams of light in the ultraviolet, visible, or infrared spectral range. Lasers present three potential kinds of hazards: photochemical, electrical, and chemical. Unprotected laser exposure can cause serious and permanent damage to the skin and the delicate tissue of eyes. So, users should wear laser safety goggles when working with lasers. The power sources for lasers also present a significant electrical hazard. Users should use due caution when working around laser power supplies. Use one hand and make sure your hands are dry and that you are not standing in water when working around the laser power supply. Some lasers present chemical hazards to users as well. The organic dyes such as Rhodamine 6G circulated in dye lasers are carcinogenic or mutagenic and should be handled only with protective gloves.