Engineers will tell you that safety is the first priority in any laboratory. Even though most student labs are non-hazardous and involve no risk to life, there is still great potential for injury if standard safety practices are not followed. While chemical burns on the fingers or a sore nose from smelling too many test tubes are probably the worst things that can happen, it’s never fun to see someone get hurt. Plus, an accident could have much more serious repercussions if there were chemicals that posed a danger to other people in the lab. To keep everyone safe while still having fun, university labs must implement best practices for student safety. These tips are especially important when working with hazardous materials or activities that may lead to injury. Here is advice on how you can stay safe while getting plenty of hands-on experience in your chemistry or chemical engineering lab courses.
Don’t consume anything from the lab.
All labs should have signs near food and drink containers that state “No eating in the lab.” This includes all chemicals and radioactive materials. Chemicals like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide are strong enough to damage your digestive system and cause serious medical issues if they are ingested. Sodium hydroxide, a solvent used in cleaning sodium hydroxide, is caustic enough to cause chemical burns inside your mouth and digestive system. This is the same chemical that is used to make liquid soap and other cleaning products. If you accidentally ingest any chemicals, immediately drink a glass of milk or eat some yogurt, which are good at neutralizing strong acids.
Double check your equipment and supplies before use.
Be sure you have the correct equipment and supplies before using them. For example, if you are using a glass beaker and find you have a plastic flask, you may not be able to heat it to the correct temperature. Likewise, if you grab a thermometer meant for a boiling water bath, you could get incorrect readings when checking the temperature of a solution in a chemical beaker. Always make sure to verify you have the right equipment and chemical reagents before use. If you are unsure about something, ask the instructor.
Wear closed-toed shoes, protective eyewear, and protective clothing.
Closed-toed shoes are important to protect your toes from broken glassware or spilled chemicals. Eyewear and lab coats, or lab coats with sleeves, can protect your eyes and clothes from spills. Even when working with nonhazardous materials, chemicals like hydrochloric acid, which is used to digest samples, can splash in your face if you are not careful. Protective clothing like lab coats with sleeves can help keep your arms and hands clean, which reduces the risk of contamination.
Don’t shake, handle, or drop chemicals.
You should never shake or stir chemicals because it could create air bubbles in the solution, leading to inaccurate chemical analysis. Only stir liquids with a rod that has a flat end. You should never shake or tap the neck of a glass container, as this could cause breakage. If you must move a container, handle it by the neck or edges and be careful not to drop it. Do not move glass containers by the bottom unless they are specifically designed for that purpose. Likewise, do not handle chemicals by their container lids. This can lead to contamination and error in chemical analysis.
Don’t breathe in any chemical vapors or fumes.
If you see vapors coming from a container or see a liquid bubbling, you are creating fumes. This could harm your lungs and make you sick. Most labs will keep a fume hood running at all times when someone is working with a chemical that produces fumes. If you see a chemical being used in your lab that produces fumes, make sure you are not directly over the hood when it’s turned on. There are some chemicals that should always be used with a fume hood.
Use a fume hood anytime you are working with hazardous material.
You should use a fume hood whenever you are working with hazardous materials. Not only will this keep the vapors away from your face, it will also help prevent the vapors from spreading around the rest of the lab. The hood is used to draw the vapors out of the lab and into the exhaust system where they are vented outside the building. When the hood is on, the light will be green. Make sure it is always turned on when using chemicals that are vented.
Be sure to label all containers of chemicals and mixtures with their contents and date.
Chemicals that you use for analysis or experiments should be clearly labeled with their contents. If you are using a chemical that was provided by your instructor, make sure to ask what it is and how it should be used. For your own mixtures and solutions, be sure to clearly label the date the chemicals were mixed and their concentrations. This can be helpful when tracking the progress of your experiments or for determining when a reagent may need to be replenished.
There are many ways you can stay safe in the chemistry or chemical engineering lab, but it’s important to remember that accidents do happen. Be sure to let your instructor know if you are injured and follow the appropriate medical procedures. If you feel like your safety was compromised, speak up and let your instructor know. They want you to have a positive and safe experience in the lab and appreciate your input.