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What hazards lurk in your laboratory and what to do about them?

This article provides a quick guide to hazards in the laboratory and the responsibilities of all involved.

The term hazard has been defined in various ways, such as "a danger or risk" in the new Canadian Oxford English Dictionary. In this article, a hazard means any material, thing, condition, practice that can bring harm to individuals or cause accidents or damage to facilities or the environment. Risk, on the other hand, is the probability, whether high, low or in between, that a person will be harmed or injured after exposed to a hazard or the probability that a hazard can lead to an accident or damage to facilities or the environment.

Types of Hazards

Usually, people associate hazards in the laboratory with chemicals they use. However, other hazards exist in laboratories. Depending on the kind of research or activities carried out, a hazard analysis in a laboratory may reveal various types of hazards such as:

* Biological - possible if blood, tissues, or microbiological samples are analyzed.

* Chemical - hazards depend on physicochemical properties and health effects (see box on Chemical Hazards).

* Ergonomic - repetitive movements, like manual pipetting, done too often, too quickly and for too long.

* Mechanical - equipment malfunctions or breakdowns (e.g., a centrifuge head that breaks while spinning: centrifuges can also cause an inhalation hazard when toxic or biohazardous aerosols are generated by spinning improperly capped tubes.)

* Physical - hazards may include radiation (ionizing - x-rays, [Gamma]-radiation, non-ionizing - UV, IR, laser), magnetic fields, and pressure extremes (high pressure or vacuum).

* Safety - slipping/tripping hazards resulting from poor housekeeping practices (e.g., clutter on floors, wet or slippery floors), and injuries/accidents resulting from contact with equipment without appropriate machine guarding in place (e.g., long hair getting entangled around a rotating pulley of a vacuum pump without its belt and pulley guard in place).

Who is Responsible for Safety?

Who IS responsible for the safety of chemical professionals in laboratories? Basically, everyone is because the internal responsibility system (IRS) enables an employee-employer partnership to be put in place to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. Employers are responsible for non-compliance with legislation. The IRS is the underlying philosophy of the occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation in all Canadian jurisdictions. Its foundation is that everyone in the workplace - both employees and employers - are responsible for their own safety and for the safety of co-workers.

A Health and Safety Committee is a joint forum for employers and employees working together to improve workplace health and safety. Using the internal responsibility system, a Health and Safety Committee will be effective in:

* establishing responsibility-sharing systems,

* promoting safety culture in the workplace,

* promoting best practices,

* helping develop self-reliance, and

* assisting the employer in compliance.

That means that the employee, supervisor, and the employer all have important roles in workplace safety.

Employees have the responsibilities to:

* work in compliance with OHS Acts and regulations,

* use personal protective equipment and clothing as directed by the employer,

* report workplace hazards and dangers, and

* work in a manner as required by the employer and use the prescribed safety equipment.

Employees have the following three basic rights:

* the right to refuse unsafe work,

* the right to participate in the workplace health and safety activities through Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) or as a worker health and safety representative, and

* the right to know, or the right to be informed about, actual and potential dangers in the workplace.

Supervisors must:

* ensure that workers use prescribed protective equipment devices,

* advise workers of potential and actual hazards, and

* take every reasonable precaution in the circumstances for the protection of workers.

In addition to specific duties prescribed in legislation, the employer has a number of general duties that are stipulated in most jurisdictions; for example, the employer is to:

* provide equipment, materials, and protective devices, as prescribed by regulations;

* ensure that equipment is maintained in good condition;

* ensure that equipment, materials, and protective devices provided are used as prescribed;

* provide information, instruction and supervision to workers to protect their health and safety;

* appoint a competent supervisor;

* acquaint the worker with any hazards in the workplace;

* carry out the measures and procedures required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations;

* provide assistance and cooperation to a JHSC; and

* take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers.

These general provisions give employers the "freedom" to carry out measures and control procedures that are appropriate for their individual workplaces. On the other hand, the challenge for the employers is to know when they have fulfilled all appropriate regulatory requirements. Acts and regulations do not always impose or prescribe the specific steps to take for compliance. Instead, it holds employers responsible for determining the steps to ensure health and safety of all employees.

Due Diligence Reigns When Legislation Does Not Give You the Specifics

This general duty for employers to "take every reasonable precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers" applies to situations not covered specifically in other regulations. The impact of this is that the employer has duties to exercise due care and diligence to protect the health and safety of employees. This means an employer must practice constant care or due diligence to identify possible workplace hazards and apply corrective action to prevent accidents or injuries. While these duties are not spelled out in specific detail, a due diligence program must meet several criteria such as:

* The employer must have in place written OHS policies, practices, and procedures. These would demonstrate that the employer carried out workplace safety audits, identified hazardous practices and hazardous conditions and made necessary changes to correct these conditions, and provided employees with information to enable them to work safely.

* The employer must provide the appropriate training and education to the employees so that they understand and carry out their work according to the established polices, practices, and procedures.

* The employer must train the supervisors to ensure they are competent persons, as defined in legislation.

* The employer must monitor the workplace and ensure that employees are following the policies, practices and procedures. Written documentation of progressive disciplining for breaches of safety rules is considered due diligence.

* There are obviously many requirements for the employer but employees also have responsibilities. They have a duty to take reasonable care to ensure the safety of themselves and their coworkers - this includes following safe work practices and complying with regulations. The employer should have an accident investigation and reporting system in place. Employees should be encouraged to report "near misses" and these should be investigated also. Incorporating information from these investigations in revised and improved policies, practices and procedures will also establish that the employer is practising due diligence.

* The employer should document, in writing, all of the above steps: this will give the employer a history of how the company's occupational health and safety program has progressed over time. Second, it will provide up-to-date documentation that can be used as a defense to charges in case an accident occurs despite an employer's due diligence efforts.

The term "due diligence" has special significance since it is important as a legal defence for someone charged under OHS legislation. If charged, a defendant may be found not guilty if he or she can prove that due diligence was used to comply with the legislation. In other words, the defendant must show that all precautions reasonable under the circumstances were taken to comply with the occupational health and safety legislation. The defence of due diligence will succeed only if an employer knows his or her duties under the legislation and has all of the elements of a "due diligence program" in place before an accident or injury occurs.

If employers have questions about due diligence, they should seek legal advice that applies in their jurisdiction to ensure that all appropriate due diligence requirements are in place. More than one agency may have to be contacted since diligence practices should be in place to comply with other regulatory requirements dealing WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System), biohazardous agents, radioactive materials, transportation of dangerous goods, environmental issues, fire and electrical codes, etc.

The ubiquitous Y2K problems also have to be considered. An accident or injury could arise if time/date sensitive equipment or machinery malfunctioned or started up accidentally in the laboratory or elsewhere in a building facility. In such an occurrence, an employer or owner could be charged. However, a defendant may be found not guilty if he or she can prove that due diligence was exercised (see box insert on Due Diligence Checklist).

Laboratories in Educational Institutions

Originally, the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OOHS Act) did not apply to teachers or to university or college teaching staff or teaching assistants. However, the regulation regarding "University Academics and Teaching Assistants" (R.R.O. 1990, Reg 858) stipulates that "the Act applies to every person who is employed as a member or teaching assistant of the academic staff of a university or of a related institution."

Nevertheless, where there is no employer-employee relationship between professors and students in colleges and universities, there still is a responsibility on the part of the professor or other persons in charge of a laboratory to ensure that the students understand the hazards associated with the experiments they are doing, how to work safely with the equipment and chemicals that they are using, and what to do in case of a spill, fire or other emergency.

Information Sources

There are numerous sources available to help employers, employees, students or anyone else concerned about safety in laboratories. The examples here will be limited to those that are on the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) web site at

Lists of books on chemical and laboratory safety, occupational hygiene, safely, etc. are accessible by clicking on "OSH Answers" on the CCOHS Home Page and then selecting the "Information Resources & Referrals" section. This will also provide a link to some CCOHS web pages on Y2K issues related to OHS, chemical safety, laboratory equipment, etc. that contain links to sites around the world.

The section "Health & Safety Programs" contains information of basic elements of an OHS program, job hazard analysis, emergency planning, accident investigation, and helpful check lists. Consult other headings for information on other workplace hazards.

The "Chemicals & Materials" section has links to information about MSDSs, WHMIS and the hazards of different classes of chemicals (e.g., corrosives, flammable and combustible compounds, etc.). The "Prevention & Control of Hazards" section contains information on working safely with these classes of compounds.

Additional information on WHMIS and Canadian OSH Legislation, including the Internal Responsibility System and Due Diligence is also available in "OSH Answers". This site is still "young" so expect to see more topics added on a regular basis. Contact the Inquiries Service if you want more information or if you do not have access to the internet (E-mail:; Tel: 800-263-8466; Fax: 905-572-4500).

Chemical Hazards

Hazards of chemical can arise from their physical properties related to the physical state of the chemical; e.g.,

* high pressure of compressed gases,

* volatility of solvents,

* temperature extremes (e.g., pressurized steam, dry ice, cryogenic liquids), or other properties like

* flammability (e,g., flammable, combustible, pyrophoric),

* explosivity,

* oxidizing properties,

* ability to form peroxides,

* corrosivity,

* dangerously reactive,

* stability,

* reactivity with water, and

* radioactivity.

Chemicals can be classified according to the kind of toxic effect they cause or the organs they affect; e.g.,

* irritancy,

* corrosivity,

* acute toxicity,

* asphyxiant,

* aspirant,

* carcinogenicity,

* mutagenicity,

* sensitization,

* long-term systemic toxicity,

* reproductive toxicity,

* neurotoxicity,

* immunotoxicity, and

* toxicity to other specific organs.

Roger Cockerline, MCIC, received a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of California, San Francisco, CA and did postdoctoral research regarding PCBs at the University of Guelph (as a Canadian returnee). He worked for the Ontario Ministry of Labour for five years and has been at CCOHS for the last 15 years (13 years as a manager of the Inquiries Service).
COPYRIGHT 1999 Chemical Institute of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Comment:What hazards lurk in your laboratory and what to do about them?
Author:Cockerline, Roger
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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