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Labs are dangerous places.
They’re brimming with nasty chemicals and harmful biological materials.
Yet, so many people are flippant about their personal safety (and the safety of others) when doing their work. One way in which people make lab work more dangerous is the misuse of personal protective equipment (PPE).
It only keeps us all safe when it’s worn correctly.
So with that in mind, here are our 10 common laboratory PPE sins. Sins we’ve all committed, I’m sure.
Our 10 PPE Sins
1. Not Wearing a Lab Coat
This always boggles my mind. Lab coats provide a barrier between that nasty chemical you are using and your clothes and skin.
If you spill something nasty on your lab coat, it can be easily cleaned or disposed of. If you do the same to your clothes, you may be faced with throwing away your favorite pair of jeans. Also, you never know what chemicals (especially those fine powders) are sticking to your clothes without realizing it.
So you could expose other folks, such as family members and friends, to these nasties. As well as putting your lab coat on—button it up.
A lab coat can only protect you and your clothes if it is actually covering them.
2. Wearing Lab Coats Outside of the Lab
Many labs have separate writing areas away from the bench where people can read papers, do computer-related work and grab a snack. This place should be a hazard-free zone.
Yet I’ve seen many people sitting at their desks wearing lab coats. I don’t want my tuna sandwich with a hint of SDS, so while it’s good your using your lab coat, remember to take it off before entering write-up areas.
3. Wearing the Wrong Type of Lab Coat
Lab coats can come in several varieties, so make sure you wear one suitable for your needs. Check out Figure 1 below for differences between the two main types of lab coats—chemistry-type and Howie-type.
This is particularly important when using dangerous equipment like UV transilluminators, where you need the lab coat to cover all parts not covered by other PPE (like gloves and face masks).
I know someone who had quite a nasty ‘sunburn’ from using a UV transilluminator without wearing a lab coat that buttoned up to the neck.
4. Not Wearing Gloves
This is my biggest pet peeve in the lab, as it makes no sense at all.
If you are using dangerous chemicals and working with harmful biological materials, why would you not want to protect your hands?
Also, gloves protect much more than just your hands, as you touch your face, doorknobs, and food with your hands many times a day, and not wearing gloves can lead to you contaminating yourself and others.
5. Re-using Disposable Gloves
They are disposable for a reason.
Check out what nitric acid does to nitrile gloves.
If you get acrylamide or any other dangerous chemical onto your gloves, you should dispose of them and get a fresh pair. Otherwise, everything you touch will also get a nice dose of acrylamide, again potentially contaminating yourself and other people.
Also, some chemicals will eat away at the gloves over time. And not all rips and tears get noticed immediately.
6. Not Removing Gloves when Moving Between Areas
Labs aren’t all perfectly set up, with equipment located in different rooms and even on different floors.
If you need to move between lab areas during an experiment (e.g., to visualize your DNA gels), take a spare pair (or two) of gloves with you in your lab coat pocket and remove one of your gloves to allow you to open doors without contaminating them. Then, carry everything else in a container in your gloved hand.
7. Misusing Insulated Gloves
Insulated gloves protect you from cold when digging through the -80 °C or taking up cells from the liquid nitrogen. These gloves do not protect your hands from prolonged contact with liquid nitrogen.
So don’t go plunging your hand into the liquid or allow any to pour over your hands when removing trays, or you will end up with some extremely nasty burns.
Same if the liquid nitrogen goes down the back of the cuffs.
8. Not Wearing Safety Glasses or Visors
Your eyes are precious and also very vulnerable. Not all lab experiments or tasks require using eye protection, but sometimes it is vital to protect your eyes and face.
When you are doing experiments where you risk spilling or splashing hazardous reagents into your eyes, it is better to be safe and wear a pair of goggles.
They might not be the most attractive of PPE, but they are critical in protecting your sight.
9. Wearing Safety Glasses Instead of Visors
There are some circumstances where safety glasses are insufficient, and you’ll need to wear a full-face visor. UV transilluminators again come to mind.
While protecting your eyes from UV exposure is critical, you also need to protect your face, or you risk getting a nasty ‘sunburn’ or even disfigured in the case of an accident when handling large quantities of corrosive chemicals.
In addition, many lab safety goggles will not protect you from UV exposure. Make sure you know when glasses are sufficient and when full visors are required.
10. Wearing Inappropriate Clothing
While not strictly PPE, your clothes (particularly your shoes) also play a role in your safety. The transgression here is wearing open-toed shoes in the lab for both men and women.
Wearing open-toed shoes (or shoes where a large portion of your feet are exposed) leaves your feet vulnerable to spilled chemicals and acid burns. High heels are also an issue because if you struggle to walk in them, you risk tripping, which can be very dangerous in a lab.
Forgive Me for My PPE Sins
In summary, when it comes to PPE:
- Wear it.
- Wear it correctly.
- Assess the safety of each situation individually.
That way, we can avoid committing more PPE sins and make the lab a safe working environment. And those are our PPE pet peeves. What are yours? Let us know in the comments section below.
Originally published in November 2012. Reviewed and updated, December 2022.