Is Your Laboratory Safe?

The popular press did not cover it, but the March 18 issue of Chemical & Engineering News reported an unusual incident at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

A professor of organic chemistry at the school lost his position because authorities deemed his laboratory was very dangerous and was a serious fire hazard. In addition, the individual would not cooperate in the school's efforts to “clean up the mess.” After 28 years at the school, he had accumulated a large quantity of publications and many chemicals.

While this seems like a remote possibility for people in the converting industry to encounter, it does indicate a potentially serious problem. The broader aspects of the converting industry can include raw material suppliers, compounders, formulators, and applicators. Many such organizations have laboratories. Some laboratories might involve R&D work, and others might perform quality functions. Regardless of its reason for existence, it requires good housekeeping. Without this, a laboratory easily can deteriorate into the state of the one belonging to the chemistry professor in Texas.

What are the components of good housekeeping in a laboratory? One very important aspect is neatness. Equipment, materials, and supplies always must be in their proper place.

Everything that requires a label, such as chemicals, should have labels that are totally legible. Immediately after using anything in a laboratory, clean it if necessary and return it to its proper place.

Closely related to neatness is cleanliness. All laboratories must be very clean at all times. Spills or any mess requires immediate removal.

Proper recordkeeping is another important facet of good laboratory protocol. All required records should be maintained for documentation of any later measurement or conclusion. Never keep extraneous material, but do not discard any important material until a suitable date in the future. Determination of this date usually requires an agreement among various departments outside the laboratory.

Safety is very important in any laboratory. Read and follow the precautions that come with any material or piece of equipment. Always wear the proper safety equipment that could include gloves, eye wear, and the like. Have fire extinguishers at hand. Maintain a file of Material Safety Data Sheets as appropriate. Keep first-aid equipment available and know how to use it properly.

When discussing laboratories, it is equally important to mention what laboratories are not.

Laboratories are not storage areas for coats, umbrellas, boots, and other personal property of people who work for the organization with the lab. Laboratories definitely are not places to keep food and drink that people will consume during the day. Laboratories are not repositories for production records, personnel files, and similar papers that companies store for long periods.

Likewise, laboratories are not suitable spots to use as storage for paper, pens, and any other material used in non-laboratory areas.

Basically, a laboratory is for its intended R&D work or its quality measurements only. An individual in charge of a laboratory always must be alert to ensure non-laboratory activities and storage do not happen in the facility.

While people working in the converting industry may not face dismissal over the condition and use of their laboratories, they should nevertheless follow these pointers to proper use of laboratory space.

David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service. Contact him at

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