If there is something that all laboratories have in common, it is bottles and bottles of chemicals. And if we are not diligent in handling and storing these bottles properly, problems will arise. Those problems can run the gamut from mildly inconvenient to life-threateningly serious. Keep reading to learn how to avoid mishaps from mishandled chemicals.
Previous articles laid the groundwork for how to manage chemicals in laboratories. These articles covered understanding the National Fire Protection Association’s hazard diamond, deciphering material safety data sheets and constructing a proper chemical inventory for the lab. In this column we provide general safety rules for handling and storing chemicals in the laboratory.
Many federal, state and local regulations have specific requirements that affect the handling and storing of chemicals in labs and stockrooms. Examples include controlled substances and consumable alcohols, covered by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency; radioactive substances, regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and hazardous wastes, governed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Requirements range from having locked storage cabinets and specific waste containers to maintaining controlled access for “regulated” areas. If any of your labs use any of these substances, make sure you know which regulations apply and what the specific requirements are.
A more common scenario is having to apply state or local building and fire codes, which are becoming more rigorous each year. Hopefully, these were identified and attended to during design and construction. But we all know how labs evolve and change and that state fire marshals are not shy about pointing out where we have crossed the line.
First things first—proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
Before we start grabbing bottles of chemicals, we need make sure we have the proper PPE. At a minimum, this would include appropriate chemical-resistant gloves and eye protection. Closed-toe shoes are a must and should be a general requirement for working in the laboratory. Lab coats or chemical aprons should be used when needed or required by your laboratory safety policy.
Now that we have covered PPE, there are a couple more things to gather and take note of before we begin moving those chemical containers around. First, survey your surroundings and notice any potential trip hazards and the locations of workstations where others are busy. Make sure exits, passageways and emergency equipment areas (e.g., eyewash and safety showers) are clear and free of stored materials. Locate and have close at hand a full spill kit with appropriate absorbent materials, neutralizing agents, cleanup utensils and waste containers. Finally, check that all chemical containers have complete labels in good condition and that MSDSs are readily available.
Tips for safe transporting
Here are a few good pointers on moving chemicals safely:
- First, never move visibly degrading chemicals and containers. Report these to your lab supervisor or principal investigator.
- Whenever transporting chemicals, place bottles in appropriate leakproof secondary containers to protect against breakage and spillage. A good example is using a special plastic tote to carry four-liter glass bottles of corrosives or solvents.
- When moving multiple, large or heavy containers, use sturdy carts. Ensure that the cart’s wheels are large enough to roll over uneven surfaces without making the cart tip or stop suddenly. If carts are used for secondary containment, make sure the trays are liquid-tight and have sufficient lips on all four sides.
- Do not transport chemicals during busy times such as break times, lunch periods or class changes (for academic laboratories).
- Use freight elevators to move hazardous chemicals whenever possible, to avoid potential incidents on crowded passenger elevators. Remember to remove gloves when pushing elevator buttons or opening doors.
- Never leave chemicals unattended.
General guidelines for chemical storage
Safely storing chemicals in laboratories or stockrooms requires consideration of many health and safety factors. In particular, proper use of containers and common lab equipment is critical. Here are some general guidelines for safe chemical storage:
- Do not store large, heavy containers or liquids on high shelves or in high cabinets. A good rule is to store these at shoulder level or below.
- Do not store bottles on the floor unless they are in some type of secondary containment.
- Do not store chemicals near heat sources or in direct sunlight.
- Do not store chemicals in fume hoods. An excess of containers can interfere with airflow and hood performance. Only chemicals in use should be in the hood.
- Especially avoid storing anything on top of cabinets. This can interfere with the fire-suppression system. Ensure at least 18 inches of clearance around all sprinkler heads.
- Do not use bench tops for storage. These work spaces should contain only chemicals currently being used.
- Do not store chemicals indefinitely. Humidity causes powders to cake or harden. Liquid chemicals evaporate. We strongly recommend that all containers be dated when they arrive in the lab. Ensure that all manufacturers’ expiration dates are strictly followed. Pay special attention to reactive or dangerous compounds. Dispose of all outdated, hardened, evaporated or degraded materials promptly.
Following these simple guidelines will get you well on the way to an efficient, organized and safely operating laboratory. Ignore them or become cavalier in their application and you may be picking through ashes or rubble one day. Spend a few minutes going through the lab with this list on a regular basis and you should avoid any major incidents with chemical storage. As always, Safety First.