Preventing Injuries in Chemistry

Kate Onissiphorou

by Kate Onissiphorou

6th July 2022

There are strict laws and regulations in place to help prevent injuries in chemistry. School laboratories and chemical companies also have their own specific internal safety procedures to protect students and employees.

Whether you’re a chemistry student or a professional chemist, it’s vital to handle chemicals safely. Of course, you should always wear protective gear like goggles and gloves when handling hazardous chemicals. However, preventing injuries in chemistry is also about ensuring that chemicals are stored correctly. 

Make sure you know which type of container to use, as well as the required temperature and pressure. It’s important to familiarise yourself with the shelf life and reactivity of a particular chemical, too. For example, if a chemical is combustible, you’ll need to ensure there are no ignition sources nearby (unless you’re planning a controlled combustion).

What are the most common injuries in chemistry labs? 

Although most chemical-related injuries can be prevented, accidents still happen. Here are some of the most common injuries that people sustain.

  • Flash burns this type of injury might occur if you accidentally touch a Bunsen burner, torch, or flammable chemical. Be careful when igniting a Bunsen burner, especially if you’re using a matchstick. Do not fully open the valve to prevent flash burns. Scientist adjusting a Bunsen burner in a chemistry lab.
  • Heat burns from hot plates to exothermic chemical reactions, there’s always a risk of sustaining a heat burn when you work in a chemical laboratory. 
  • Chemical burns acids, bases, oxidising agents, and other highly reactive chemicals can cause burns if they come into contact with the skin.
  • Lung damage volatile and noxious chemicals can irritate or even damage the lungs when inhaled.
  • Cuts and scrapes pointed or sharp items, blades, and broken laboratory glassware can all cause cuts or scrapes.
  • Poisoning when working in a laboratory, there’s a risk that your clothing, skin, or hair may become contaminated with trace chemicals. These chemicals can then find their way into your food and be inadvertently ingested.

It’s always best to assume that the substances you use, mix, analyse, and experiment with in a chemistry laboratory are hazardous. You should therefore take the necessary precautions and practise the standard protocol every time you handle chemicals.

Laboratory chemicals can be corrosive, caustic, combustible, explosive, toxic, or even carcinogenic. Some chemicals do not have immediate or obvious effects, but long-term exposure to these substances can be detrimental to your health.

The best ways to prevent chemical injuries

Many of the accidents that occur in chemistry laboratories are preventable. You can easily reduce the risks of health hazards and injuries by following safety protocols and precautions. Here are some examples. 

  • Wear PPE always wear the appropriate personal protective equipment, such as a laboratory gown or apron, goggles, gloves, face mask, and a face shield when working in a chemistry laboratory. Scale-up your protective equipment as the chemicals you’re handling become more hazardous. A scientist wearing PPE to conduct an experiment in a chemistry laboratory
  • Read the chemical information the substances used in chemistry laboratories will have varying levels of hazards, so it’s important to read the chemical information written on the container’s label. Highly hazardous chemicals purchased from a reputable supplier will also have a corresponding material safety data sheet (MSDS).
  • Check the temperature always check the temperature of laboratory equipment and chemicals before touching them. You never know whether a beaker, flask, or test tube, for example, has recently been subjected to heat.
  • Proper ventilation a chemistry laboratory should be properly ventilated. This might be as simple as opening all the windows when working with chemicals. HVAC systems can also be designed to properly circulate interior air into exterior air and vice versa.
  • Proper fire precautions fire extinguishers, automatic sprinklers, emergency exits, and fire alarms should be installed in any chemical laboratory.
  • Avoid using matchsticks do not use a short matchstick when trying to light a Bunsen burner or a flammable chemical such as phosphorus. This can help to prevent burns caused by a flash flame.
  • Proper storage be careful when storing chemicals and always consider the substance’s specific properties. Store chemicals in the right environmental conditions, for example, at the correct temperature and pressure. Some chemicals need to be kept in a well-ventilated storage facility, while others should be stored in a separate building entirely, especially if there’s a large quantity. Some types of chemicals need to be stored in metal containers, while others should be stored in plastic containers.
  • Emergency wash/shower area a chemistry laboratory should have an emergency wash/shower area so that staff can clean themselves in cases of accidental chemical spills or body contamination. Image warning workers to wash their body following exposure to chemicals
  • First aid kits a chemistry laboratory must have a cabinet for first aid kits, including poison antidotes.
  • Safety protocols chemistry laboratories must follow safety protocols that are appropriate for the chemicals being used, analysed and processed. Aside from standard and mandatory safety regulations, laboratories should also have their own internal protocols that are specific to certain chemicals and situations.
  • A good laboratory layout wherever possible, a chemistry laboratory must not be cramped. There should be ample space to move around, especially if several people are working in one area at the same time.
  • Proper staff training laboratory staff should receive proper training to ensure they fully understand the chemical hazards and safety protocols.

What are the most dangerous chemicals?

The most dangerous chemicals are the weaponised ones, such as nerve agents. However, there are several non-weaponised chemicals used in industries that are also highly hazardous. Many of these chemicals are corrosive/caustic, poisonous, toxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic. They include organic and biochemicals, such as venoms.

Here are some of the most dangerous chemicals:

  • Batrachotoxin the most poisonous bio-organic chemical produced by poison dart frogs. Red striped poison dart frog
  • Chlorine trifluoride a highly corrosive chemical that can even corrode glass.
  • Potassium cyanide historically used as a suicide pill, it can kill in a matter of minutes.
  • Venomous Agent X a weaponised nerve agent that has a lethal dose of about 10 mg.
  • Ricin a naturally occurring organic compound found in the seeds of the castor oil plant. It only takes a very small amount of purified ricin (equivalent to a few grains of salt) to kill a person almost instantaneously.

Chemical safety training for lab technicians

While qualified laboratory technicians will have received formal laboratory safety training at college or university, they may still need to undergo specific training at their workplace. 

Lab technicians should be given employee safety training when they start a new position. Some long-term employees may also need to update their training in time. Training normally includes safety protocols, chemical classification and storage, and emergency first aid.

Flash burns – this type of injury might occur if you accidentally touch a Bunsen burner, torch, or flammable chemical. Be careful when igniting a Bunsen burner, especially if you’re using a matchstick. Do not fully open the valve to prevent flash burns.

Heat burns – from hot plates to exothermic chemical reactions, there’s always a risk of sustaining a heat burn when you work in a chemical laboratory.

Chemical burns – acids, bases, oxidising agents, and other highly reactive chemicals can cause burns if they come into contact with the skin.

Lung damage – volatile and noxious chemicals can irritate or even damage the lungs when inhaled.

Cuts and scrapes – pointed or sharp items, blades, and broken laboratory glassware can all cause cuts or scrapes.

Poisoning – when working in a laboratory, there’s a risk that your clothing, skin, or hair may become contaminated with trace chemicals. These chemicals can then find their way into your food and be inadvertently ingested.

It’s always best to assume that the substances you use, mix, analyse, and experiment with in a chemistry laboratory are hazardous. You should therefore take the necessary precautions and practise the standard protocol every time you handle chemicals.
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All content published on the ReAgent.ie blog is for information only. The blog, its authors, and affiliates cannot be held responsible for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from using the information provided. Additionally, we do not recommend using any chemical without reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can be obtained from the manufacturer. You should also follow any safety advice and precautions listed on the product label. If you have health and safety related questions, visit HSE.gov.uk.