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Laboratory Safety

Laboratory work necessarily entails safety issues. This is especially true of work with
genetically modified organisms (GMOs), such as bacteria modified with green fluoresce
protein (gfp) gene used in the practical component of the GENIAL programme. The
information in this document is targeted at teachers of the GENIAL material and aims to
supply them with adequate background to ensure a safe working environment and to
comfortably discuss genetic laboratory safety issues with students.

Currently, regulations vary across each of the member states of the EU, both for chemical
and biological safety. Additionally, different laboratories have different requirements
dependent on the nature of the equipment and hazards in each. Thus, the aim of this
document is to provide an overview of safety issues that may need to be considered when
doing experiments in genetics laboratories and pointers to relevant information. It should
be used as a guide to the issues only, and not as a comprehensive reference.

Further information on European Regulations and Guidelines for Health and Safety issues
can be found at the website for the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work:

From here specific details for each EU member state can be accessed. Those who use
this document are encouraged to obtain up-to-date details of local regulations and
familiarise themselves with them prior to utilising the GENIAL material.

The main considerations for safe working practice within the genetic laboratory
environment are :

• Awareness of laboratory workers (including students) of

Good Laboratory Practice

• Assessment of Risk
o Chemical Risks
o Biological Risks
o General occupational health and safety risks

• Conformity to Health and Safety Legislation

o International
o European
o Local

• Conformity to Environmental Legislation

o International
o European
o Local

• Specific GMO hazards and issues

Laboratory Safety
Awareness of laboratory workers (including students) of
Good Laboratory Practice
Before beginning work in any laboratory, all workers must familiarise themselves with safe
working practices and procedures, particularly emergency procedures. Every worker
needs to be responsible for his or her own safety and that of their coworkers.

New workers in the laboratory should be formally introduced to working practices and
protocols through (a series of) training sessions to ensure they are fully aware of potential
risks and hazards and how to deal with them. It is important that this training is continually
refreshed and updated for those persons working in the laboratory long-term.

It is suggested that training sessions cover at least the following points:

• Dealing with laboratory fires including usages of different types of fire

extinguishers, and evacuation procedures.
• Elementary Emergency First Aid Training
• Other emergency procedures
• Protocols for spillage and disposal, both chemical and biological
• Methods to reduce risk in the laboratory
• Relevant documentation (eg. COSHH forms, Accident forms, written

Above all, these sessions should be designed to foster positive attitudes toward safe
working practice.

Suggested considerations for a number of incidents are highlighted below, but protocols
should be developed and tailored to local conditions and regulations.

General Considerations

Food and drink must be kept out of the laboratory due to the risk of contamination from
subsequent consumption. Likewise, protective clothing (including gloves and safety
glasses) used in the laboratory should not be worn in non-laboratory areas.

Visitors who are unaware of laboratory safe practice and children should not be allowed to
enter the laboratories at any time.

Workers with medical conditions should seek advice and guidance prior to handling
chemical or biological substances, as this may seriously affect the health of the worker
and/or unborn children.

Accident and Injury

Each laboratory should have someone trained in first-aid who is able to provide care and
assistance in emergencies. The names of first-aid personnel should be clearly displayed
in prominent areas of the laboratory. Workers must be aware of the location of the first-aid
Laboratory Safety
Working alone should be forbidden in case of accident.

Anyone involved in an incident should report it immediately to the relevant safety

representative, especially where the incident involves chemical or biological exposure due
to the possibility of long-term effects.

Hair and other loose objects, such as jewellery and loose clothing, should be securely tied
back to minimise the possibility of getting caught in equipment.


Most public buildings will already have a fire-safety procedure, however, if your laboratory
is lacking one the following guidelines may be useful:

If you start or discover a fire:

 Raise the alarm
 Call for help using the emergency services telephone number
 Switch off all electrical appliances and close all windows and doors
 Warn people working nearby and calmly evacuate the area
If you hear a fire alarm:
 Switch off all electrical appliances and close all windows and doors
 Warn people working nearby and calmly evacuate the area

In order for this procedure to be effective, all workers should be aware of the nearest fire
exits to where they are working, the location of fire extinguishers in the vicinity and any
precautions that should be taken for special hazards.

Additionally, it should be made clear to all workers that tampering with fire-fighting
equipment is strictly forbidden.

General Emergency

Flooding can cause destruction of data (laboratory notebooks, media), electrical shortages
and can react with water-sensitive chemicals. As such, precautions should be taken to
keep copies of important data in a remote or safe location. Likewise water-sensitive
chemicals, particularly those that may cause fire on contact with moisture, need suitable
storage facilities.

Interruption to electricity supply may result in defrosting of microbes, reactive and/or heat
sensitive chemicals. Appropriate containment measures should be observed. Back-up
supplies such as generators should be seriously considered where an accident would be
particularly high-risk.

In certain locations the risk of earthquake should be considered and precautions taken
accordingly. Associated problems may include interruption to electricity, spillage and
biological release. Large equipment should be secured to the walls or floor to prevent
Laboratory Safety
Chemical Spillage

Information on how to deal with spillage of a chemical should be provided on the MSDS
sheet for that chemical. This should have been consulted during a risk assessment of the
chemical for usage and clearly marked on a risk assessment form nearby the experiment
or storage facility in question.

In addition, any laboratory that handles chemicals (other than those which are classified as
non-toxic) should have on hand a spill-kit, as well as suitable emergency equipment such
as eye-wash, shower and breathing apparatus. Spill-kits are available commercially and
generally contain special absorbent powders, granules and/or cloths for dealing with liquid
and solid samples, protective equipment such as gloves and glasses and instructions for

Always treat unknown chemicals as dangerous.

Biological Release

Clean-up after any procedure using bacteria should involve disinfection or sterilisation,
such as with an autoclave. In case of a spill of biological material, the initial response
should be to treat with a disinfectant or bleach. Care should be taken never to allow any
live material to be disposed of down open drains.

Particular care must be taken where the sample may enter the atmosphere as an aerosol,
such as where a centrifuge tube has broken in a running centrifuge. The sample should
be allowed to settle for at least 30 minutes before opening to the atmosphere, and suitable
protective clothing, such as face masks, should be used when cleaning up in this case. If
the material has become aerosol within the open laboratory, evacuate and allow the
aerosol to settle for at least 30 minutes before re-entering with protective equipment.
During this time, all other workers should be prevented from entering the laboratory to
minimise the possibility of infection.

For biological material spilt on a person, first wash the affected area with water and
germicidal soap. In the case of contact with eyes, they should be flushed with water for at
least 15 minutes. Medical follow-up should be implemented if possible.
Laboratory Safety
Assessment of Risk
Before undertaking laboratory work, an assessment of the hazards is key to minimise
foreseeable safety problems. This is particularly important when handling hazardous
chemicals or biological samples. As such, a risk assessment should be carried out prior to
commencing work. If this is done by a supervisor, then all supervised workers must be
informed clearly, either verbally or in the form of written documentation, of the risks they
will face and how to minimise and safely handle these risks.

In chemical and biological laboratories a hazard form should be filled in with appropriate
data and left either near the experiment or in a registry. This will allow other lab workers
and emergency workers to be aware of the risks in case of accident.

For handling chemicals this should typically cover:

• The chemical structures, formulae and names so that the components can be
readily identified in case of spill.
• A listing of the hazards known for each chemical e g . flammability,
explosiveness, corrosiveness, carcinogenicity. These can be found in most
chemical supply catalogues (eg Sigma Aldrich, Lancaster, Avocado) and on
Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).
• Precautions against exposure, including requirements of special protective
clothing, special containment measures (fumehood etc.), special equipment.
• Emergency, Containment and First Aid procedures required in case of spillage.
This should incorporate any specific measures for firefighting such as identifying
the correct type of fire extinguisher to be used.
• Disposal Procedures, such as the requirement for hazardous waste containment
or methods of safe decomposition.
• Identification of the worker, the date of the experiment and contact details in
case of emergency. The form should be signed by the worker and supervisor,
where applicable.

There are a number of web sites with freely available online MSDS sheets.
Examples include:

MSDS Solutions site:

Oxford Physical Chemistry MSDS site:
Vermont Safety Information Pages:

Examples of hazard forms for chemicals can be found at:

University of Newcastle COSHH form (Excel spreadsheet)
University of Wales Bangor COSHH form (Word file):

Note that whilst COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) is UK-specific

legislation, the general principles comprise good laboratory practice and are consistent
with EU guidelines. Further information on COSHH can be found at the COSHH
essentials web site :, which is part of the Health and
Safety Executive’s general COSHH information:
Laboratory Safety
For handling biological samples the following should be recorded:
• Organism name and strain
• Purpose of experiment
• Safety classification of the organism
• Risks to human health
• Precautions for handling/usage and storage of the organism
• Spillage and disposal procedures, such as methods of containment
• First Aid in case of exposure
• Identification of the worker, the date of the experiment and contact details in
case of emergency. The form should be signed by the worker and supervisor,
where applicable.

Examples of hazard forms for various classes of organism can be found at the website of
the National Collections of Industrial, Food and Marine Bacteria (NCIMB):
in the downloads section:

Further information on Hazard Classification of Organisms, complete with hazard protocols

can be found in the World Health Organisation’s Laboratory Biosafety Manual (Second
edition (revised). Interim guidelines)

and the EEC directives : 90/679/EEC and 93/88/EEC

Specific Aspects of Bacterial Biosafety

The GENIAL programme deals solely with manipulation of bacteria of class 1 hazard (low
risk). In general Good Microbiological Practice should suffice in the handling of these
organisms as they present low risk to human health. Every precaution, however, should
be taken to ensure that the organisms dealt with in this programme are not released to the
environment as they are genetically modified and thus may present special environmental

A very detailed summary of all aspects of biosafety, including treatment of bacteria,

viruses and pathogens classes 2,3 and 4, animals and human material can be found in the
World Health Organisation’s Laboratory Biosafety Manual:

General Health and Safety Risks

Many of the general hazards and risks in the laboratory environment are covered in the
section Awareness of Good Laboratory Practice. For specific occupational health and
safety precautions, further details can be obtained from the International Labour
Organisation (ILO, or country specific websites linked through The
European Agency for Health and Safety at Work (
Laboratory Safety
Health and Safety Legislation
International Health and Safety

The United Nations led International Labour Organisation (ILO, has
guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health issues, including a selection of publications
covering a variety of topics.

In particular, ILO make available International Chemical Safety Cards, that provide both
general hazard information (including risk phrases (R numbers) and safety phrases (S
numbers) and specific information on disposal and spill containment for certain chemicals
in a variety of languages:
a mirror site is provided by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, also provide a wealth of information on chemical safety, both on their
website and in associated publications. This includes topics such as risk assessment,
classification and labelling, accidents, good laboratory practice etc.,2688,en_2649_34365_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

They additionally provide an overview of the current regulations for biosafety in the
member countries:,2340,en_2649_34393_1890001_1_1_1_1,00.html

European Health and Safety

The European Union ( provides specific information regarding health

and safety:

Also, there are a number of specific EEC directives regarding worker safety, especially
with regards to handling chemical and biological agents. These are summarised in the
online document :

Key directives include:

Exposure to chemical and biological agents: Council Directive 80/1107/EEC and
subsequent amendments
Protection of workers from biological agents: Council Directive 90/679/EEC and
subsequent amendments

The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work ( has
information on occupational health and safety for the European union and member states.

Local issues
These should be assessed at the local level. However, much information for specific
countries is available from both the European and International sites listed above.
Laboratory Safety
Environmental Legislation
Environmental legislation is applicable to genetic laboratory work in two ways:
• correct disposal of chemical waste
• correct disposal of biological waste

International Guidelines
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, provides
international guidance on issues to do with environmental protection. There is
international legislation that describes the disposal of large-scale chemical wastes,
particularly pesticides.

The GENIAL project deals with chemicals and biological agents on a much smaller scale,
but students should be made aware of the implications of, and issues surrounding, the
release of chemical and biological waste into the environment. The UNEP Earthwatch site
( provides a good starting point for emerging issues in dealing
with biological and chemical agents in the environment.

European Guidelines
The European Environment Agency ( concerns itself with environmental
protection within Europe. Again, this site is good for general issues, but not on specific
legislative detail.

Local information
There may be local rules that cover release and disposal of both chemicals and biological
waste. In general chemical wastes that contain strong acids or bases should be
neutralised prior to disposal. Those materials that are chlorinated or contain heavy metal
residues should have separate containment and be disposed by a professional company.
Other solid wastes should be dealt with by professional disposal. Biological waste should
be inactivated prior to disposal. In factious wastes should be dealt with professionally.

GMO specific issues

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present particular environmental and safety
issues. As such, in many countries it is explicitly an offence to either release any GMOs
into the environment or allow them to escape. For micro-organisms, such as bacteria,
efforts should generally be made to contain the micro-organism as per the health risks, but
also in such a way as to reduce any identified environmental risk.

Full guidance on assessing GM risks can be obtained from the UK’s Health and Safety
Commission in the ACGM Compendium of Guidance, which is available in print or online:

The impact on health and environment, and the ethical issues of genetic modification
should be discussed with students at greater length if time permits. There is a wealth of
information available on the ethical issues surrounding GM, and this is therefore an
appropriate topic for development as a SOL-based lesson.
Laboratory Safety
References and Further Information
All websites listed were correct as of 10th June 2004.

Chemical Safety:

European Agency for Health and Safety at Work
Control of Dangerous Substances

British Health and Safety Executive
Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Chemical Safety,2688,en_2649_34365_1_1_1_1_1,00.html


World Health Organisation
Laboratory biosafety manual. Second edition (revised). Interim guidelines

United Nations Environment Programme
International Technical Guidelines for Safety in Biotechnology

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Biosafety regulations within the OECD,2340,en_2649_34393_1890001_1_1_1_1,00.html

Guidance on Handelling GMOs

British Health and Safety Executive
ACGM Compendium of Guidance, ISBN 0 7176 1763 7