Chemistry Labs

As the new school year starts, some students will enter high school chemistry classes for the first time. Teachers will introduce the basics of chemistry and all the possibilities it presents to understand the world we live in. But before they can begin teaching, they must know they are working and teaching in a safe chemistry lab.

Search online and you will find plenty of guidance related to safe operations in a lab. That same search may leave you confused, when it comes to reviewing chemistry labs for safety. Many of you have asked for a basic guide to chemical laboratory safety. The list below contains items that, if reviewed within your labs, should give you confidence that the lab and the operations within that lab have reduced risk exposure to a very low level.

If you need assistance understanding or reviewing the items, there are resources within your community to assist you. Your local fire department is a great resource for the emergency and fire safety questions. Contacting your district’s risk manager or workers’ compensation carrier will provide information about general safety items and, in many instances, they may even provide members of their staff to assist you in the review of the lab. If this is your first time reviewing these spaces, contacting fire and risk management representatives and asking them to review the lab as a team might be beneficial. You will have experts who can answer your questions. They can also provide solutions to problems identified on the tour. Your state Occupational Health and Safety office can also be a resource for consultations.

Items in the list below address training apply to all staff, not just teachers. Custodial crews and maintenance staff who find themselves in the lab should be knowledgeable of the hazards. Custodial crews should know if there are water reactive chemicals, and only trained staff should be used to assist with spill response. Maintenance crews should be aware of flammable gases and vapors and know proper procedures to follow before working on fume hoods with the lab.

Review your mechanical system shutdown procedures. Do they notify teachers and staff prior to the time there will be a shutdown on water, lab gases or ventilation systems within the lab?

Proper review, training and procedures will help minimize the risk of a lab fires, staff and student exposures/injuries, costly repairs and bad publicity.

Laboratory Safety List
  • Fume Hoods tested within the last year
  • Staff training for all personnel up-to-date and accessible
  • Chemical hygiene plan up-to-date and accessible
  • MSDS sheets and references readily accessible
  • First aid kit available and stocked
  • Safety shower and eyewash stations tested within last year
  • Exit doors unobstructed
  • Fire extinguisher accessible and inspected within last year
  • All electrical equipment is grounded
  • Equipment cords' insulation is in place and not damaged
  • No slip, trip or fall hazards in the lab
  • Multi-outlet power strips are not overloaded
  • Safety guards are in place for equipment and moving parts
  • Food is not stored or consumed in the lab
  • Trash container is specifically designated for glass
  • Aisles have a minimum of 24 inches clearance
  • Emergency procedures and contacts are posted and current
  • Work surfaces are clean and orderly
  • Flammable liquids are stored in fire-rated cabinets
  • All containers are clearly labeled and include hazard identification
  • Solids are stored higher than liquids
  • Peroxide compounds are properly stored and labeled with date opened
  • Water- and air-reactive compounds are stored properly
  • Gas cylinders are secured at two points in upright position
  • Chemical waste is labeled and stored properly
  • Household-type refrigerators are not used for flammable storage
  • Old chemicals are disposed of
  • Chemicals are segregated by hazard and compatibility
  • Ceiling clearance from sprinklers is 18 inches, nonsprinkled, 24 inches

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.