When the fire began in the university chemistry laboratory, it quickly got out of hand. They called the local fire department since the flames became too much for extinguishers to handle. When the fire trucks arrived, the battalion chief asked for a chemical inventory so that his crew would be aware of what dangers they would be facing. No one in the chemistry department had a chemical inventory, and if they had one, they did not know where to find it. The fire department refused to enter the building since it was deemed too dangerous, and the building was left to burn.
That sounds like a crazy story, but it is a true one, and it highlights the need for a laboratory to follow the regulations surrounding Hazard Communication. OSHA’s standard requires organizations that store and handle chemicals to communicate the hazards of those chemicals and to create an environment where working with them is performed safely. OSHA also promulgated the Chemical Hygiene standard (or “Lab Standard”) which supersedes the HazCom standard for laboratories. Both of those standards contain multiple regulations regarding handling chemicals, and while it may seem overwhelming there are some simple hacks that can help a lab to improve its overall chemical management.
First, create a chemical inventory for the lab, and optimize it. Create a list of hazardous chemicals, list the manufacturer, and the typical amount kept on hand. List the hazards of each chemical by using NFPA ratings or pictograms. That provides the necessary chemical risk assessment OSHA requires. You can also satisfy a College of American Pathologist (CAP) requirement by designating which chemicals on the list are acutely toxic, reproductive toxins, or carcinogens. Make sure staff knows how to access the inventory, and that it is updated at least annually. Having all of these items on the same list can fulfill many standards at once.
Keeping up with chemical labeling is a task with which many labs struggle. Decide on a labeling convention for secondary chemical containers. Labs can use NFPA labeling, HMIS labeling, or Globally Harmonized System pictograms for hazard identification. Maker sure staff are trained in whichever system is utilized. Check secondary containers regularly to make surer they are labeled properly. Many labs are in violation of labeling standards because containers go unlabeled, and dangerous mix-ups can ensue.
Another chemical hygiene hack is to keep the laboratory prepared for a chemical spill. While large spills do not occur often, they are serious events, and staff needs to be ready to handle them efficiently and safely. Make sure spill kits are sufficient, that they are appropriately placed, and that there is signage indicating their locations. Keep large volume spill kits that may be needed for water leaks or the use of a safety shower. These kits contain absorbent pads and booms that can keep larger volumes of liquids at bay. Train staff how to use the spill supplies, and conduct spill drills often so that everyone can navigate a spill scenario smoothly. Practicing a spill response can prevent exposures and injuries when the real event occurs.
There are many other things to consider under the umbrella of chemical management. The proper storage of flammable materials, chemical vapor monitoring, and Safety Data Sheet management are just a few other topics that need consideration. Communicating hazards to laboratory employees, training them to properly handle hazardous materials, and preparing for chemical emergencies are great steps to take to better manage your chemical inventory and keep your staff safe while doing so.