Get a Head Start on Setting Up a Safe Laboratory

Your postdoctoral years are nearly at an end. In a few months, years of hard work will pay off with what once seemed like a distant dream--a lab of your own. Want some tips on the easiest ways to make your new lab safe and compliant with your institution's safety guidelines? Well, try these ideas.

Contact Safety Officials Early On

Tip one: You don't need to wait until the first day of your new job to start setting up a safe lab. Whether you're moving to a new university or research institute, or joining the faculty where you are now, you'll benefit by introducing yourself months in advance to the safety officials whose help you'll need.

Use safety officials as consultants, advises Lawrence Gibbs, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety at Stanford University. Even if your arrival is several months away, they can help you design the laboratory you need for the experiments you want to do. The sooner you get their guidance, he counsels, the sooner you can start doing experiments.

"You can't do this without advice," warns Emmett Barkley, director of the Office of Laboratory Safety at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Even though lab safety isn't complicated, you must have help for two reasons: One is that safety requirements vary among institutions. "The one thing you can be sure of is that the safety requirements will be different from the ones where you got your training," says Barkley. The other reason is that federal and state safety agencies expect your lab to comply with their guidelines. Safety officials know the latest rules and how they are interpreted.

It's important to understand that your institution has promised to conform to government safety standards. This means that not only must your lab be safe, but you must shoulder your share of the paperwork that shows your institution complies with regulations. A university or research institute with unsafe labs can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moreover, departments with hazardous labs can be forced to pay part of those fines. Guess which grant your department might get that money from if your lab isn't safe?

Safety Is Often a One-Stop Shop

Tip two: In American universities, the safety office is most often called something along the lines of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S), and you should start introducing yourself there as soon as possible. If separate safety offices exist, such as one dealing specifically with radioactive material safety, EH&S officials will point that out. However, a trend is to put safety officials under one roof, offering new investigators one-stop shopping in setting up safe labs.

Practically every new lab chief must deal with fire safety. Most will deal with chemical safety and waste management. Others will also be concerned with safety issues regarding radioactive materials, recombinant DNA, work with blood-contaminated materials, or containment of infectious agents. Ask about the guidelines that fit your situation, the rules for procurement and storage of hazardous materials, and requirements for licenses and training.

Despite the diversity of hazards, some general advice applies to nearly all labs: "The hazards that cause the most harm are the everyday routine things and not the esoteric things that relate to sophisticated science," Barkley notes. The big three are fire, sharps (most injuries are self-inflicted cuts with razor blades), and chemicals. Minimize use of Bunsen burners and sharps. And even if volume discounts sound like a good deal for your small budget, avoid buying chemicals in bulk quantities; bulk buying increases the chemical hazard while using up valuable storage space.

Barkley also recommends hiring a technician who has already worked at your institution. You'll have someone who knows the ropes and who can be a safety mentor to your lab's newcomers.

Lab Safety Goes Online

Tip three: You may be able to complete much of your lab safety work through your new university's Web site. In fact, universities throughout the country are adding lab safety pages to their sites, according to Wayne Thomann, director of occupational and environmental safety at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina: "Once we know we've got new investigators coming, we encourage them to come into the site and go through the process."

Duke's Web site exemplifies the trend. Even from thousands of kilometers away, a soon-to-be Duke lab chief can register as a chemical waste generator, train online to become an authorized user of radioactive materials, fulfill requirements to use lab animals, learn Duke's recombinant DNA rules, and learn its containment requirements for high-risk pathogens. Take advantage of the Web, Thomann advises, and you "will be ready to hit the ground running" when you arrive.

Free Safety Videos

Tip four: Avail yourself of every opportunity to learn about lab safety. You may, for example, find it useful to take a look at "Practicing Safe Science," the first of 11 free videotapes on lab safety produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Topics include chemical, physical, radiation, and biological hazards in the laboratory. Order the ones you need online at and use them to help make sure that you and your colleagues have a safe and productive time in your lab.

* Tom Hollon is a freelance writer in Rockville, Maryland.

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