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Hazardous Chemical Exposure in Laboratories

by Dr. Isabel Perry, “The Safety Doctor”



1238 Words


It is estimated that there are almost 700,000 chemical products in existence today.  Hundreds more are developed every year. About 32 million Americans work with and are potentially exposed to chemical hazards. Because of the potentially serious consequences of these numbers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued the Hazardous Communication Standard, found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 29, Part 1910, 1200.  The purpose of the standard is to make sure that employers and employees know about chemical hazards and how to protect themselves.  OSHA believes that this knowledge will help reduce the number of accidents and injuries caused by these chemicals.


Despite the efforts being made, many accidents and injuries still occur annually in laboratories, ranging from simple skin and eye irritations, to fatal accidents.


Exposure to hazardous chemicals may cause or contribute to many serious health ailments, including, but not limited to: heart ailments, cancer, damage to the central nervous system, kidney and lung damage, sterility, burns and rashes.  Some chemicals also have the potential to cause fires and explosions.


OSHA has traditionally controlled exposures to chemicals through the development of substance specific standards.  In areas where there are no standards, companies are required to comply with OSHA’s permissible exposure limits (PELs), in the Z Tables of Title 29, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), 1910, 1000.


These methods have worked well for people who are exposed over long periods of time to large quantities of hazardous materials.  However, in laboratories, people are generally exposed to small amounts of chemicals over shorter periods of time.  It is estimated that about 934,000 workers are at risk in approximately 34,200 laboratories in schools, clinics and industry.  The standard clearly defines what constitutes a laboratory with its “laboratory use” and “laboratory scale” parameters.  The laboratory rules require that a company comply with the PELs and effect a Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP). The CHP is the core of the standard and outlines:

¨      Sets training and information requirements for the employer

¨      Establishes:

o       Appropriate work practices

o       Methods of control

o       Standard operating instructions

o       Measures for appropriate maintenance

o       Measures for appropriate use of protective equipment

o       Medical examinations

o       Special precautions for particularly dangerous substances, including “select carcinogens,” reproductive toxins and those with a high degree of acute toxicity

¨      Allows for annual review of the effectiveness of the safety and health plan and updates as needed. 

¨      The plan must be available to:

o       Employees

o       Their designated representatives

o       The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health

¨      Employers must designate a chemical hygiene officer and, if appropriate, a committee to give guidance in the implementation of the plan.

¨      A Chemical Hygiene Officer may have several responsibilities, from monitoring the Chemical Hygiene Plan to helping project directors upgrade a facility or improve policies and practices.



Components of a Chemical Hygiene Plan


A thorough plan contains the following elements:

1.      Employee Information and Training

2.      Medical Examinations and Consultations

3.      Methods of Control

4.      Personal Protective Equipment

5.      Safeguards for Particularly Hazardous Substances

6.      Hazard Identification

7.      Record keeping


Let’s look at each of these components individually:


  1. Employee Information and Training

Keeping workers safe from harm should be of paramount importance to the employer.  Taking the time to train employees on the materials they will be working with or around has priority.  It is suggested that in addition to informing contract employees about potential hazards, they be invited to attend these types of meetings.  Whenever an employee changes duties and moves into another area, they will need to be trained on the hazardous materials in their new location..


Training must include:

¨      The contents, location, and availability of the Chemical Hygiene Plan

o       The components of the plan and how it’s implemented in the facility

¨      Safety or protective measures the employee can take

o       What the employer has done in the work area to provide protection, such as work practices, personal protective equipment (PPE), an engineering controls.

¨      Exposure limits

o       For regulated substances, the permissible exposure limits

o       For unregulated substances, the recommended exposure limits

o       Signs and symptoms associated with exposure to all the substances

¨      Locations and availability of all information on these substances; such as the MSDSs, safe handling instructions, storage instructions, and disposal instructions.

¨      Methods workers can use to detect the presence of hazardous chemicals and any potential problems associated with them:

o       Visual appearance

o       Smell

o       Continuous monitoring procedures


2.   Hazard Identification

Besides making sure that all hazardous material containers are properly labeled, employers must:

¨      Maintain MSDSs on all these materials, including any new ones that are received

¨      Make sure that labels on hazardous chemical containers are not removed or damaged


3.   Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

These are documents that provide specific information on a chemical, including:

¨      Chemical identities

¨      Physical properties

¨      Associated health hazards

¨      Reactivity data

¨      Control measures

¨      Precautions for safe handling and use


The only time an employer has to prepare an MSDS is when a chemical is produced at that laboratory for a user outside the laboratory


4.   Safeguards for Particularly Hazardous Substances

In addition to the regular protective measures for hazardous chemical handling, employers are required to provide special measures for work which involves the following:

¨      Reproductive toxins

¨      Select carcinogens

¨      Substances with a high degree of acute toxicity


These measures include:

¨      Use of signs and warnings in the appropriate areas

¨      Containment device, such as a fume hood

¨      Instructions for decontamination of the area

¨      Instructions for safe removal of the contaminated waste


5.   Methods of Control

These are specific measures to reduce the employee’s exposure to hazardous chemicals in the laboratory.  These usually include:

¨      Work practice controls, such as:

o       Eating and drinking area restrictions

o       Restrictions on mouth pipetting

o       Methods for performing work to minimize exposure

¨      Engineering controls, which might include:

o       Exhaust systems

o       Glove boxes

o       Fume hoods

o       General ventilation


6.   Personal Protective Equipment

¨      Respiratory controls are only to be used when work practice or engineering controls aren’t feasible

¨      Wear as appropriate:

o       Safety glasses

o       Gloves

o       Whole body coverings


7.   Medical Examinations and Consultation

It is not required that an employer keep medical records for all employees.  However, any employee has to have an opportunity for medical attention if they work with hazardous chemicals.  Medical attention and follow-up must be offered if the employee:

¨      Shows signs or symptoms associated with exposure

¨      Is routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals at or above the PEL

¨      Is present at a spill, leak, explosion or accident that might involve significant levels of hazardous materials


The employer must give the physician specific information about the incident and the chemicals involved.  The physician’s office must supply the employer with documentation on its findings.


8.   Record keeping

Employers must keep accurate records:

¨      Exposure records and data analysis based on them are kept for 30 years

¨      Medical records are to be kept for 30 years after employment

¨      Medical records for employees of less than 1 year don’t need to be kept, BUT must be given to the employee upon termination of employment


Employers and employees should know about chemical hazards and how to protect themselves, and ensure that safety procedures are properly carried out.  This will create a safe working environment for everyone!


Dr. Isabel Perry is an internationally-known safety expert, motivational speaker, author, and safety educator.  Based in Orlando , Florida , she can be reached at 407-291-1209 or via e-mail at [email protected]