Understanding Lab Safety Around the Globe

The conversation around global lab safety started with C&EN’s April cover story, “Improving Prospects for Chemists in Cuba.” Readers wrote in to express their concerns with the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the accompanying photograph of a lab in Cuba. C&EN explained it was fully aware that the lab workers in the photo were not wearing safety goggles, and that it wanted to draw attention to the limited resources some scientists experience around the world. This sparked conversation across the global science community about differing safety practices between countries.

The recent webinar “Going Beyond Borders: Lab Safety Around the Globe” focused on the added complexity of international lab work. The webinar presenters, Ralph Stuart of Keene College, New Hampshire and Sammye Sigmann of Appalachian State University, shared their perspective on international lab safety. They noted that international collaborators have to take cultural differences, language, operating costs, infrastructure, and security concerns into consideration, among other things. This is a two-way street, however, and both parties should adapt to accommodate each other. When working with international colleagues, scientists should look to ACS documents for guidance when figuring out the balance between the two sets of practices.

The webinar found laboratories around the world share similar safety challenges, but cultural differences persist. That means lab workers may encounter unfamiliar safety practices when they move between countries. It’s critical for lab workers to effectively communicate in the lab and have a proper translator present to avoid any language barriers.

Know Lab Safety Education Guidelines

The speakers said everyone in a lab should be able to answer five questions:

  1. What are the most important chemical and process hazards associated with this work?
    • When working with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, reference the pictograms, signal words, and hazard statements.
  2. What ventilation is required for this work, and why?
    • What are the fire and toxicity hazards based on the chemicals in use?
    • How often does the ventilation need to change?
  3. What PPE is required for this work, and why?
    • What are the hazards of the chemicals you are using?
    • Think about the scenarios of concern, i.e. spills, incidental contact, contamination control, etc.
  4. What emergencies should you plan for?
    • Consider fires, medical emergencies, and hazmat spills.
    • Devise a plan with local response agencies, like evacuation routes.
  5. What will you do with the waste?
    • What kinds of waste are you producing? Chemical, biological materials, broken glassware, general trash and recycling?
    • Check policies with the host institution.

All lab workers have the responsibility to ask and know the answers to those questions. Whether at home or abroad, it is important to communicate safety expectations, the webinar speakers noted.

Etiquette for Foreign Lab Safety

The webinar speakers also had tips for navigating cultural differences in foreign labs while maintaining lab safety. Foreign labs may present many differences you will need to adapt to. There may be different levels of risk and resistance to change, a difference in perception, and different responses to authority. Personal interactions may be different than in your lab. Lab dress may vary, depending on culture and temperature control.

The infrastructure may not meet your expectations. There may be an insecure power grid, making it harder to keep materials cool or causing a variance in voltage. There could be ventilation issues with either the chemicals or equipment. Older or poorly engineered equipment may be present.

The presenters said it is important to keep in mind that these scientists are still doing great science with the infrastructure they have, and they take pride in what they’re able to do. Be respectful when visiting labs, and safely adapt to any cultural differences.

The American Chemical Society provides a wide variety of downloadable documents on lab safety. 

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