The first time you pick up a bottle of hydrochloric acid, if you’ve been properly educated about the dangers, it can be scary. You handle the bottle carefully, and you’re sure not to spill at all. The next few times, nothing has happened, and you’re confidence is high. You handle the chemical with less care.
When you’re new to the Histology laboratory, you notice the strong fumes of the formaldehyde. You worry about your exposure, and you ask about ventilation. As time goes by, the smell goes away, and since nothing has happened, your respect for the carcinogen lessens.
In these situations, the perceived risk goes down, but the actual risk doesn’t change at all. Unfortunately, this perception can happen for those who work with hazardous chemicals for a long time and have experienced no known negative effects. That can also be true for all areas of lab safety, and that is why continued awareness is so important.
Some regular occurrences can remind staff of the hazards incurred when handling chemicals. When chemical fume hoods are inspected each year, and when staff participates in vapor badge monitors, they may be reminded that the chemicals they use each day are not without dangers. It is not enough.
OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard states that laboratories should create and maintain a chemical inventory, a list of all hazardous chemicals stored and used. That inventory should be updated at least annually and when new chemicals are brought into use in the department. Be sure to involve staff in this process. If you have them help provide the information, that can be a method to increase chemical hazard awareness. The College of American Pathologists (CAP) also requires a chemical risk assessment such that labs need to determine which chemicals are carcinogenic or reproductively and acutely toxic. This assessment can also be done by staff as a means to promote chemical safety. Looking at Safety Data Sheets for information can be very educational.
Teaching lab staff to perform a chemical audit in the department can also be a tool to teach about chemical safety. First, look to see where chemicals are stored. Make sure all chemicals are stored below shoulder level and that concentrated acids and bases are stored near the floor. Look for bottle carriers if large glass bottles of chemicals are moved often. Next, make sure incompatible chemicals are not stored next to each other. For instance, acids should never be stored with bases. Labeling is important as well with regard to chemical safety. Ensure all primary and secondary chemical containers have adequate labeling.
Looking at flammable storage can be tricky, but it can become easier once you understand the physical environment in your lab. In general, labs can have up to one gallon of each class of flammable chemical out and in use per every 100 square feet of space. That limit becomes two gallons if the flammable chemical is kept in a safety can, and the limits double again if there is an automated fire extinguishing system (like a sprinkler system) in the department. Outside of those limits, flammable chemicals should be kept inside of a flammable storage cabinet. Cabinets may contain no more than 60 gallons of a class I, II or III flammable liquid, and there may be no more than three flammable storage cabinets in each designated fire area.
When chemical exposure monitors occur, results need to be shared with employees within fifteen working days once results are received. This is a good time to discuss with staff the dangers of certain harmful chemicals, including those being monitored. Some, like formaldehyde, are carcinogenic, and all protective measures should be in place when handling it. Discuss the importance of engineering controls, ventilation, and PPE. If representative vapor monitors are performed, be sure to share the results with all staff who perform the tasks that were monitored.
There are many duties that must be performed in order to maintain safe management of the chemical program in the laboratory. Sharing these duties and including lab employees when performing these tasks can be effective toward raising overall chemical safety awareness. It can also prevent complacency which can be dangerous when working with such hazards. The range of chemical risk does not change over time, and as a lab safety professional, you must impress that fact upon your staff so that they are always as careful as they were the first time they picked up a chemical container.