Too Hot to Handle: A 3-Step Program for Working with Autoclaves

Like the coffee pot used for brewing your favorite morning beverage, an autoclave is such a common and familiar piece of lab equipment that it is easy to overlook the associated hazards. If we do not think about what might go wrong, sooner or later we will get burned (couldn’t resist the bad pun). So the Safety Guys thought it would be a fine time to discuss one of our hot topics (OK, OK, no more). Seriously, by following our simple three-step program of training, testing/monitoring/maintenance, and record keeping, you can avoid mishaps and potential significant damage or injury.

Recognizing the hazards

Just consider autoclaves large, specialized pressure cookers. Autoclaves use heat and pressure with water to create superheated steam. Accordingly, they can pose significant hazards to untrained or lackadaisical employees.

Autoclaves are usually needed for two basic purposes, either to steam-sterilize media, instruments, or lab equipment such as glassware and specialized implements or to inactivate biological waste materials.1 The main hazards are physical ones presented by high temperatures, steam, and pressure. Effective sterilization requires steam temperatures in excess of 250°F (121°C). Typical autoclave pressurization is at least 20 pounds per square inch (psi). Depending on the use, additional biological hazards such as infectious materials or physical hazards from sharps may be of concern. By utilizing the practical information and guidance given here (as well as from many other sources online), researchers are ensured safe operation of autoclaves in the laboratory.

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