Dangers from toxic chemicals can be mitigated with proper use of laboratory fume hoods and fume extraction systems
More than a half a million people work in laboratories across America. No matter their field of scientific study, lab workers can be exposed to occupational hazards whether chemical, biological or radioactive in nature. (1) Add to this group all the students and faculty working within college and university systems chemical sciences. At nearly 4,000 US institutions of higher learning, there are innumerable students logging a greater number of lab hours. How are they protected?
OSHA’s Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations protects lab workers employed in US laboratories. This standard protects all workers using hazardous chemicals during “Laboratory Use”, which is defined as chemical procedures using small amounts of dangerous chemicals (not the quantities used for production). This standard requires employers to keep employee exposures at or below the permissible exposure limits as set by OSHA. (2) But these protections don’t extend to the students themselves – only those employed to work in the labs in which students pursue academic study. And yet, the same chemicals are present for workers and students alike.
The short answer to the question regarding who is responsible for safeguarding the lab students nationwide is the colleges and universities themselves. While laboratory safety is governed by numerous local, state and federal regulations, students, however, fall under institutional, rather than governmental, protections. College and university systems are beholden to government regulations in their capacities as employers – and so the protections bestowed on their workers carry over to – but is not regulated for – their students.
Vigilance in protecting the student scientist is paramount. It is up to each learning institution to set their own guidelines and safety protocol.
The University Of Wisconsin university system labs, like many other schools, maintain their own rigorous standards for lab safety. Regarding hazardous chemicals, their strict laboratory standards apply to all who work in facilities that meet the criteria for “lab use”; a workplace where small amounts of hazardous chemicals are used in a non-production capacity where multiple chemical procedures or chemicals are used. The ultimate goal for all who use their university labs is to employ protective practices that will minimize the potential for exposure to hazardous chemicals. (3)
Most, if not all, college labs dealing with hazardous chemicals already have Standard Codes of Laboratory Conduct, mirroring Title 29, which includes identifying hazards, determining student exposures, and developing a chemical hygiene plan which includes standard operating procedures. In their Chemical Hazards safety manual, Duke University, for example, spells out the chemicals, labels, lab cleanliness, and the use of safe transportation and storage. (4)
In addition, the National Institutes of Health recommends written evaluation of Hazards and Risk Assessments in all chemical labs. This recommendation includes identifying all hazardous chemicals and products that are mixed and providing data regarding physical and chemical properties, physical hazards such as flammability, reactivity, and explosion hazards, in addition to supplying detailed toxicity data. (5)
In addition to these safeguards, it is crucial that laboratories have the means to ventilate and capture dangerous chemical fumes before risks turn to danger.
At Air Systems Inc., we serve our college and university customers who wish to protect students and workers in their chemical labs by identifying areas of potential risk. We supply them with stellar IAQ products such as our fume hoods and fume extraction equipment that will ventilate and remove noxious fumes so that toxic fume inhalation and other hazards – such as laboratory explosions – cannot occur. Contact us today for a free safety program estimate with one of our skilled and experienced clean air specialists.