Lab Safety—Use Common Sense!

image of author sitting in a lab surrounded by equipmewnt and wearing safety goggles.Beakers and pipettes and chemicals, oh my! Science labs are full of gadgets and substances waiting for student scientists to explore, whether they’re trying to make soap, dissect a shark, or extract the DNA of a plant.

While labs can be exciting and the results of experiments can be interesting—even dramatic!—here at the EPA, I make lab safety a priority. December is a great time to continue to practice lab safety so that we can all end the year on a good note!

Some of the most useful tools I have in dealing with lab safety are ones that I carry with me at all times—I’m talking about my senses. Besides putting on my safety glasses and protective gear, what I see, hear, and smell offers important signals to what’s happening in my lab. I put all this information together because it’s common sense! I want you to have fun and avoid accidents.

What do I see in this lab? Do I see a number of unlabeled containers? If I do, I surely can’t be in an EPA laboratory! Ask your teacher or lab assistant if you’re unsure — don’t guess!

Do I hear something strange? Do you hear the sound of a vacuum pump and see a bunch of glass tubing connected together? This could be an evacuated glass line and it may be very dangerous to be around. If you hear something unusual, notify your teacher or lab assistant.

Is there a smell of chemicals? Do they smell like chemicals that may be flammable? I may want to think before lighting a burner.  How about the smell of something hot?  Are there burners or hotplates in use and where are they? Is someone watching them? If not, alert the teacher or the lab assistant!.

Tuning your senses in to what’s happening in your lab is a great way to make sure you and your fellow scientists stay safe—so put your eyes, nose and ears to work.

About the author: William Rugh is the Lab Manager of EPA’s Integrated Stable Isotope Research Facility in the Western Ecology Division located in Corvallis, Oregon