Lab Safety
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Last Updated: 12 Jan 2009

Who's Responsible for Safety?

Safety in the labs is everybody's responsibility. It is enabled by:

  • keeping things tidy and exit paths clear
  • periodically inspecting equipment and cabling
  • educating lab users on safety procedures and hazards
  • maintaining lists of harmful substances and situations and what to do about handling them
  • posting signs providing information about emergency numbers and equipment, prohibiting unsafe behavior, or requiring protective measures
  • raising awareness about how to prevent problems and how to be prepared for them

Be Prepared

General principles to being safer:

  • Don't work alone when working with potentially dangerous equipment or processes.
  • Large groups of people in the labs requires supervision by faculty, staff or others trained in handling emergencies whenever potentially dangerous equipment is involved.
  • Think and plan ahead for what you will do in an emergency, thereby mentally preparing yourself for it.
  • Stay focused on what you are doing to prevent problems, but also be aware of what is going on around you in case problems arise elsewhere in the room.

Before a class or lab exercise that concerns anything that might be dangerous to use, you must familiarize yourself with:

  • Location of nearest emergency exits and assembly points

    Also, keep paths to exits clear (three-feet wide) and identify people who might need special assistance in an emergency.

  • Location and use of nearest fire alarms and fire extinquishers

    If a person's hair or clothing is on fire, smother the flames by using a coat or having them drop and roll.

    Only people trained in the use of fire extinguishers should use them; otherwise, an untrained person could put himself or others in danger.

  • Location of phone to call for help (9-911 from campus phone; all others use 911)

    Know the location of the incident and describe the nature of the emergency.

  • Location and use of first aid kit

Also, you should know what to do if an unrelated emergency happens (e.g., someone else pulls the fire alarm, or an earthquake occurs):

  1. Shut down anything that might be hazardous (e.g., turn off burners) during the incident or afterwards (e.g., when power returns after a power outage).
  2. In an earthquake, drop to the floor and cover your head, holding that position until after shaking stops.
  3. If not in the midst of an earthquake, evacuate as soon as possible whenever a fire alarm is pulled.

Fire Safety

Fire alarms alert others of danger. Fire extinguishers and smothering practices fight small fires. After taking any immediate action, always call for emergency help and to report a totally controlled incident.

  1. Person on fire:
    • have them drop and roll, or smother flames with coat
    • call 9-911 or 911 for help
    • shutdown any ignition sources (burners, hot plates)
  2. Equipment or furniture on fire: small area (size of trash can)
    • use fire extinguisher only if you are trained
    • call 9-911 or 911 for help
    • if fire is under control, shutdown any other ignition sources (burners, hot plates)
    • evacuate
    • pull fire alarm if fire spreads or restarts
  3. Equipment or furniture on fire: large area (bigger than size of trash can)
    • call 9-911 or 911 for help
    • evacuate and pull fire alarm

Hot Materials Safety

Some items may get heated enough to cause injury if handled or a fire if placed in contact with something flammable (e.g., clothes, paper, desktops). Handle hot materials by using gloves and grabbing cool container handles. Hot water splash injuries can be minimized by wearing protective eye gear, lab coats, and long sleeves. Any other liquids or materials may be hazardous chemicals, which aren't covered in this simple overview -- see the UW Environmental Health and Safety's Lab Safety Manual.

  • Exposed skin (face, hands, arms, legs) or eyes

    Touching hot surfaces or splashing hot liquids could cause minor or major burns. Minor burns can be treated with cool water and ice; major burns require emergency care.

  • Flammable materials (e.g., clothes, paper, desktops) can be ignited by a sufficiently hot container -- it doesn't have to be an ignition source like a flame or the surface of a hot plate.
  • Electrical solder will burn if it comes in contact with skin, and soldering hoods (in CP206J and SCI113 only) should be used to remove harmful soldering fumes from the soldering area.

Electrical Safety

Electrical safety involves avoiding or preventing shocks, both major shocks that can kill people and/or start fires, to minor shocks which sting but can destroy computers and electronics.

  • frayed or abraded cords

    These are found by close, periodic inspection of cords. Abrasion of the cords is caused by movement of the cord or the thing rubbing against it, usually something fairly sharp. Avoid sharp, permanent bends and knots. Beware of splices, deterioration, taping and any damage. Once bare metal wires are exposed, they can cause injury or a fire if shorted.

  • inadequate cords or power strips for the load

    Attempting to draw too much current through either the cord (because it is too think of a gauge of wire) or through the outlets in a power strip can cause the cord or power strip to overheat, which can lead to a fire.

  • inadequate insulation on modified equipment

    The insulation covering screw terminals or twisted wires involved in high-voltage connections needs to cover all bare metal and should be difficult to remove accidentally. Any modifications must be checked by qualified personnel before put into use by students.

  • lack of grounding

    Electricity will travel via the path of least resistance; a grounding wire helps keep the path along its wire versus through a human. Since people can generate static electricity by simple and involuntary actions, it is best for sensitive electronic equipment to discharge any static electricity through a grounded device (e.g., a computer plugged into a grounded outlet) by touching a piece of bare metal on that device.

  • water or other conductive liquid spills on electrical equipment

    If the equipment is running, it will likely cause a short and possibly a fire. Cut the power to the equipment if possible. If the equipment was not running during the spill, make sure the equipment is thoroughly dried out and inspected prior to applying power.

Moving Parts Safety

Some equipment has exposed moving parts that must be guarded from accidentally grabbing loose clothing, expelling pieces of debris, or otherwise causing harm by its motion. Enclosures, belt guards, shields and the like reduce the chances of damage and injuries.

Electrical Load Safety

Circuit breakers often handle the effect of some electrical devices trying to draw too much power, but everything must be directly plugged into the wall outlet for the breakers to be most effective. If you attempt to plug in many devices into a power strip (which ultimately plugs into a wall outlet), you could force too much current to flow through a device (the power strip) that has no circuit breaker in it, and that could cause the strip to melt or cause a fire.

Consider the power load for the devices you have plugged into a multi-outlet power strip, and how many will be turned on simultaneously. Consider as well the fact that many wall outlets share the same circuit, so the addition of devices to more wall outlets may still cause the breaker to trip. And in a lab environment, the circuit breakers may not be easily resettable.

Change Log

12 Jan 2009 Original document

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