• Creating a culture of safety in life science laboratory

    Serious accidents in chemical research laboratories across the globe --some of them fatal--have highlighted a need for improved lab safety. But it has become increasingly clear that simple compliance with regulations can only go so far in protecting researchers.

    Building a strong, positive safety culture will require action from everyone involved in the academic research enterprise.


    It is not enough to provide safe equipment, systems, and procedures if the culture of the organization does not encourage and support working safely in the laboratory.

    Some of the basic precautions recommended for promoting culture of safety in life science laboratories include

    • Always wear appropriate personal protective equipment. Change gloves when contaminated, and dispose of used gloves with other contaminated laboratory waste.
    • Wash your hands after working with potentially hazardous materials and before leaving the laboratory.
    • Do not eat, drink, smoke, handle contact lenses, apply cosmetics, or store food for human consumption in the laboratory.
    • Follow the institutional policies regarding safe handling of sharps (i.e., needles, scalpels, pipettes, and broken glassware).
    • Take care to minimize the creation of aerosols and/or splashes.
    • Decontaminate all work surfaces before and after your experiments, and immediately after any spill or splash of potentially infectious material with an appropriate disinfectant.  Clean laboratory equipment routinely, even if it is not contaminated.
    • Decontaminate all potentially infectious materials before disposal.

    Life science includes branches of science, such as biology, ecology and medicine that deal with living organisms and their organization, life processes, and relationships to each other and their environment.

    The use of animals in the science laboratory can be a very rewarding educational experience. With animals comes humane care and appropriate animal husbandry practices. Abuse, mistreatment and neglect of animals are unacceptable.

    The following safety precautions should be addressed when dealing with animals in the laboratory:

    Provide adequately sized cages.

    Make sure cages are cleaned on a regular schedule.

    Cages should be locked and in an environmentally comfortable location.

    Check with the nurse for student allergies and make accommodations as needed.

    Use gloves when handling vertebrates.

    Never have poisonous animals in the laboratory.

    Only secure animals from reputable suppliers.


    Biotechnology is an exciting relatively new area and is becoming more popular. The following procedures for working with biotechnology foster a safer learning experience:

    DNA and microbes should be handled as if they can cause infections.

    Handwashing hygiene is required before and after laboratory work by washing with antibacterial soap and water.

    Gloves, chemical splash goggles and aprons are required.

    Keep fingers away from eyes, nose and mouth.

    Decontaminate work surfaces before and after laboratory activities and accidental spills.

    Use only mechanical pipetting. Never use mouth pipetting techniques.

    Decontaminate all labware such as glassware that was used in laboratory work by soaking in a 10 percent bleach solution for several hours.

    Prior to disposal of biologicals, destroy all experimental microorganisms.

     Bloodborne Pathogens and OPIMs:

    Bloodborne pathogens are bacteria, viruses and parasites found in human blood and other body fluids (Other Potentially Infectious Materials, or OPIMs). They can infect and cause disease in humans. The two pathogens recently receiving the greatest attention are the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Other pathogens that can also be of concern are herpes, meningitis, tuberculosis, Epstein-Barr virus, Lyme disease, malaria and syphilis, to name a few.

    Other potentially infectious materials, or OPIMs, can also foster disease. OPIMs include human body fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions, cerebrospinal fluid, synovial fluid, pleural fluid, pericardial fluid, peritoneal fluid, amniotic fluid, saliva and any other body fluid that is visibly contaminated with blood.

    Bloodborne pathogens can be transferred by four different ways — direct, indirect, airborne and vector-borne. Direct and indirect are the biggest threat:

    Direct — by touching body fluids from an infected person. This includes contact with lesions, open wounds or sores on the skin. Skin lining of the mouth, nose or throat, and eye contact/invasion, are additional avenues.

    Indirect — by touching objects that have touched the blood or another body fluid of an infected person.


    Should plant or animal dissections be used in  a laboratory or demonstration, the following safety precautions should be observed:

    Always used chemical splash goggles, gloves and aprons when doing dissection work.

    Review emergency eye-wash procedures for chemical exposure prior to doing dissection work.

    Always have the specimen completely rinsed prior to dissection to avoid contact with preservative chemicals.

    Mount specimens on a dissecting pan in lieu of holding the specimen.

    Use sharps such as dissection scalpels and blades with caution.

    Cut away from the body — never toward the body.

    Never remove any dissected parts from the laboratory.


    Electrophoresis is a great opportunity for the laboratory study of DNA sequencing and more. This activity is becoming more popular with the advent of biotechnology studies. However, electrophoresis units tend to operate at relatively high voltages. The following general safety procedures need to be addressed in dealing with this technology:

    Avoid physical contact to unintentional grounding points and conductors like metal, water sources and jewelry.

    Work should be located on non-conducting benches and floors. Rubber mats can serve as an insulating surface.

    Use only ground-fault circuit interrupt (GFCI) protected electrical receptacles for power.

    Locate the equipment in places where wires will not cause a trip and fall hazard.

    Prior to use of equipment, inspect and correct items such as cracks, leaks and frayed wires.

    Some electrophoresis devices have cooling components or apparatus. Do not contact any cooling apparatus with a gel as the tubing can be a current conductor. Always directly supervise the use of the equipment.

    Exercise caution in working with power supplies that produce high voltage surges when first energized. Should the electrophoresis buffer spill or leak, stop the operation and clean up the spill immediately.

    Heat Sources:

    Autoclaves/Pressure Cookers

    Autoclaves can be dangerous given high pressures and temperatures. Only  trained science paraprofessionals should operate these devices. Apply the following safety precautions when using autoclaves:

    Never place combustible or flammable materials near or on the autoclave.

    Wear heat-resistant gloves, apron and chemical splash goggles.

    Pressure cookers are less expensive than autoclaves and may be useful in simple laboratory sterilization procedures. They can be equally as dangerous as autoclaves at high pressures and temperatures. Their use is not advocated given the potential for explosion in the case of faulty pressure release values. However, if pressure cookers are to be used, follow these safety tips:

    Hot Plates

    Hot plates are a major heat source in biology laboratories. They are easy to operate and less dangerous than gas burners.

    Always inspect wiring on hot plates before use. Make sure insulation is in place and all prongs are on the plug.

    Plug the hot plate into a GFCI protected wall receptacle.

    Never touch a hot plate that has been in operation until it cools.

    Never tie the cord around a heated hot plate.

    Never leave a hot plate unattended.


    Microbe study in the laboratory requires special precautions given the opportunity of pathogenic bacteria exposure. Commercially prepared preserved bacteria slides are also a safer alternative to live cultures. There are a number of laboratory test strips available from biological supply houses and pharmacies that can be used to detect the by-products of bacterial action. An additional alternative is the use of yeast cultures for student use.

    The following safety protocols should be strictly enforced with any bacterial work:

    Personal protective equipment such as chemical splash goggles, lab coat or apron, and gloves are required during the laboratory activity.

    Make sure all skin scratches and cuts are covered with bandages.

    Absolutely no food or drink is allowed in the laboratory.

    Keep sources of potential contamination such as pencils, hands and laboratory equipment away from body orifices such as mouth, ears and nose to prevent potential contamination.

    Have disinfectant tray available for the discard of contaminated equipment such as pipettes, petri dishes and more.

    Should there be an accidental spill of microbial organisms, immediately contain it with dry paper towels. Sterilize the paper towels and disinfect the area of the spill.

    All bacteria cultures and petri plates should be autoclaved or microwaved prior to disposal.


    Microwave ovens can be used as both a heating source and decontamination device. Simple safety precautions include the following:

    Never operate the microwave oven when empty.

    Always check the door seal prior to use to make sure it does not have a breach.

    Persons with pacemakers should not be near the oven when operating.

    Never place metal objects such as aluminum foil in the oven.

    Do not put face near the oven door while operation.

    Make sure the inside surface of the microwave is clean.


    The study of plants is both interesting and relevant to everyday life from food sources, oxygen production and energy sources. However, plants can also produce toxic substances that can put human life in harm's way. Be certain to follow the following safety plan when dealing with plants in the laboratory:

    Never have poisonous plants or plants producing allergens in the laboratory.

    Inform about the difference between edible and non-edible plants

    No plant part should be tasted without specific direction.

    No parts of plants should be burned that have allergen-type oils such as poison ivy and poison oak.