Let's Have A Look : Preparing for an Effective Lab Safety Inspection

The typical research facility contains a multitude of hazards. Most facilities will have a mix of research laboratories, instrument rooms, chemical storage areas, waste handling areas, and busy receiving/loading docks. The focus of this column will be on conducting safety audits in research laboratories, but the steps and the process can be applied to all the different areas of the facility. This Safety Guy’s column will step you through conducting a meaningful laboratory safety survey. Our intent is to stimulate you to set up and implement a successful in-house program.

A great starting point for any lab using hazardous chemicals is the OSHA Laboratory Standard,1 an excellent resource and the current regulation for private-sector facilities. Appendix A of the standard recommends performing inspections at least semiannually or quarterly for labs with high personnel turnover.

Personally, we feel there is no substitute for face-to-face interviews and a physical walkthrough of each laboratory. The crucial thing here is that the inspector or auditor must have specific training and/or experience. He or she must possess specialized knowledge about the type of research performed in the laboratory undergoing the safety inspection. Checklists can help guide the process, but you need to know what you are looking for and what questions to ask if something does not appear right. You need to look for and spot the same health and safety issues that the regulating agencies would cite if they visited the lab. The different agencies potentially involved could include OSHA, EPA, USDA, CDC, DEA, and NIH, depending on the research focus of the lab.

Therefore, a complex lab may require more than one visit and/or inspector.

We prefer unannounced safety inspections, as this methodology can provide insights into true day-to-day lab operations. However, there are drawbacks to this approach. If the lab is very busy, the principal investigator (PI) or lab manager might not be available. Or some areas might not be accessible due to ongoing experiments. Flexibility is needed, and a mix of scheduled visits and unannounced inspections is the best option.

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