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Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposal of Chemicals
Education for Safety and Pollution Control
Good attitudes toward rational risk assessment and safe habits, as well as awareness of the expectations of others who might be affected by laboratory work, should be instilled in laboratory workers from their earliest experiences with observing and performing laboratory operations. Early in primary school children should be involved in thinking through possible implications of and risks in experiments that they see or do, learning that this is part of the way science is done. If good habits are inculcated from the beginning, participation in the culture of safety will be natural and painless; if these lessons are neglected until college or graduate school, or until the first industrial job, reeducation can be a difficult, expensive, and perhaps even a dangerous initiation.
At the present time, there is a wide range of safety consciousness and safety preparation among individuals entering high school, college, graduate school, and industry. Teaching laboratories at all levels are faced with the problem of young personnel with diverse backgrounds and various levels of preparation. Some who are beginning their first college laboratory course work may have had no previous hands-on training in handling chemicals or equipment and may even carry a "chemophobic" prejudice to the workbench. Others may come well prepared to assume personal responsibility for risk assessment and safety planning in their experiments if their instructors in high school have trained them to share in every stage of experiment planning, with attention to suitable waste disposal as a routine component. If the research environment in their undergraduate and graduate schools has not emphasized shared responsibility and good working relationships with environmental health and safety personnel, even professional chemists entering well-run industrial or government laboratories may find it difficult to adjust to the environment of fully accountable experiment planning.
Factors Affecting Safety Practices in Laboratories
A wide variety of factors, both internal and external, have affected the conduct of laboratory work during the past 15 years. Public concern for safety in the workplace and protection of the environment through pollution prevention has resulted in a voluminous array of regulations designed to control every stage of the transportation of chemicals to and from laboratories, their handling within the laboratory workplace, and their final disposal. Safe practice by laboratory workers requires continuing attention and education; it cannot be assumed to be optional. Accordingly, an infrastructure of professionals trained in environmental health and safety has developed who serve at the interface between federal, state, and local regulatory agencies and the educational and industrial laboratories where chemicals are handled. An increasing climate of litigation has also sharpened the awareness of everyone on the ladder of responsibility, from directors and trustees to maintenance personnel, about the price that may have to be paid if accidents occur as a result of the illegal or irresponsible handling of chemicals or chemical waste. "Down the sink" disposal, for example, is no longer routine.
Many steps have been taken to improve the safety of equipment for handling and experimenting with chemicals. An increasing trend toward miniaturizing chemical laboratory operations has reduced the volume and, therefore, the cost of acquiring chemicals and handling all aspects of waste, including the removal of toxic vapors from the laboratory. Concurrent with miniaturization has been the development of instruments with vastly increased sensitivity and speed of operation so that both the quantities of materials and the turnaround time required for obtaining answers to experimental questions have been reduced drastically. In some teaching and research programs, simulation by computer has replaced experiments that pose a particular danger. Waste minimization and pollution control techniques, such as recycling and the development of more efficient or nontoxic synthetic routes, have gained increasingly high priority as the cost of waste disposal has escalated.
Unquestionably, most laboratories are safer places to work now than they were 15 years ago. However, the ultimate key to maintaining a safe environment lies in the attitude and behavior of the individual worker.
Preparation for running an experiment in the laboratory has always required forethought in order to assemble the necessary chemicals, purify them to an acceptable level, set up and test the required apparatus, and use precedents from the literature, or in-house reports, to consider the appropriate scale and conditions to be employed. Depending on the individual worker, the supervisors, and the requirements of the institution, the process may be formalized to different degrees. The new culture of laboratory safety recognizes that it is wise to formalize the process of experiment planning, both in the interest of safety and to ensure compliance with regulations for the handling of reactants required for the proposed processing and