The Inspector: Safety in the College Laboratory

By Philip Chandler

Yes it’s true, as discussed last month; the most pressing fire issue for us is off-campus living. And yes it’s true that as far as on-campus fires are concerned, we worry most about our residential occupancies. Nonetheless, there is one place on the campus that we ignore at our peril: the laboratory. As long as I have been on the college beat, laboratories have regrettably proven to be a consistent source of fires and lifeendangering mishaps. Fortunately, for those of us administering the International Fire Code (IFC) we have the basic enforcement tools to make laboratories a whole lot safer.

The fire hazards posed by the careless handling, use, and storage of flammable liquids strikes me as our number one issue. Of particular concern is the storage of organic compounds in common household refrigerators, rather than ones specially designed and listed for the storage of flammables. I wish I had a buck for every fire caused when the starting of a refrigerator compressor or the arcing of a light bulb in its socket ignited an accumulation of volatile vapors escaping from their containers. The frequency of this scenario is startling, only matched by the frequency of blank stares that I receive from faculty, staff, and graduate researchers when I draw attention to this problem.

Many are quick to argue that this will never be a problem in their laboratory, as they are in the habit of tightly securing all lids or double wrapping all containers. Please, give me a break! When I open the refrigerator door and I am assaulted by the disgustingly pungent odors associated with organic chemistry, I know that lid or no lid, flammable vapors are off-gassing and ripe for ignition. The nose knows.

The IFC clearly addresses this issue. “Equipment, machinery and required detection and alarm systems associated with the use, storage or handling of hazardous materials shall be listed or approved (IFC 2703.2.3, 2009).” That means the same fridge that I have in my kitchen will not do for storage of a two-liter bottle of ethylene oxide. Look, I’m no chemist; if I see the flame icon, package warnings, or an NFPA 704 flammability rating on a container in a conventional refrigerator, I hit the penalty button. Fortunately, abatement of the above violation is often inexpensive and uncomplicated; most flammable liquids found in the laboratory do not require refrigeration in the first place.

Good inventory management practices are the foundation of laboratory safety. It is imperative to not only keep track of all chemicals that are on hand, but to determine if they are even needed at all, and if so, that the quantities are in line with the intended use. Once an inventory has been completed, excess and unnecessary materials should be removed; lessening a fuel load is always a good thing. It is also necessary to determine if the remaining materials are properly stored in accordance with their properties and quantities.

It goes without saying that in order for an item to be inventoried, it needs to be correctly labeled. Virtually every laboratory that I visit contains innumerable containers without any identification at all. Here again the IFC is explicit: “Individual containers, cartons or packages shall be conspicuously marked or labeled in an approved manner (2703.5.1).” This means not only large storage containers, but every vial and beaker as well. And even those containing water need to be clearly identified. During the daytime everyone working in the lab probably does know the contents of every container, maybe. But what about the night cleaner that accidentally knocks over a glass vessel with a mop handle, splashing its contents on exposed skin? Do we need to seek emergency medical treatment? Do we have a hazardous material incident and need to summon the fire

Another area of great concern is the way in which hazardous waste is managed in the laboratory. Even in laboratories that are otherwise well-run, it is not uncommon to find many shortcomings in the storage of waste materials awaiting disposal. Chief among them is the recycled jug with a funnel in the top into which all manner of spent materials are poured. More often than not, this receptacle is poorly labeled, if at all. That’s bad enough. More significantly, these catch-alls are left uncovered, allowing free venting of you-name-it vapors from whatever this mongrel brew contains. Lab technicians are often quick to point out that there is really no danger here, as this process is safely contained in a fume hood. Ha! What about those days in which the ventilation system is shut down for maintenance, or those times, seemingly more frequent, when the power goes out? I’ve never seen anyone dash into the lab to put a cork on their concoctions.

Even more disconcerting than plain old laziness and poor housekeeping is unabashed ignorance. There are those lab managers that willfully solve their hazardous waste disposal problem through the age-old method of evaporation. From nature it came and back to nature it returns. This is just outright dangerous; it is a fire hazard and an environmental hazard as well.

The IFC clearly spells it out: “Hazardous materials in any quantity shall not be released into a sewer, storm drain, ditch drainage canal, creek, stream, river, lake or tidal waterway or on the ground, sidewalk, street, highway or into the atmosphere (2703.3).” Where do the vapors sucked up by the hood go, anyway?

I could go on and on about laboratory safety. This is a huge topic and there are others infinitely more competent in the field that hopefully will pick up where I leave off. However I do wish to editorialize for just a moment. As I see it, the college years, graduate as well as undergraduate, are a time of preparation for the years beyond. For most of us, it is our sincere wish that the fire safety training that we provide to students on the campus will equip them for the rest of their lives. So too  should all science programs on the campus not only provide the very best and latest topical knowledge, they should also develop and deeply ingrain a commitment to safe and environmentally sound practices by students that will last well beyond their time on the campus.

Philip Chandler is a longtime firefighter and a fulltime government fire marshal working extensively in the college environment–from large public university centers to small private colleges. His primary responsibilities include code enforcement and education. Phil welcomes your comments, thoughts and opinions (whether in agreement or opposition) to his viewpoints. He may be reached at:


The viewpoints expressed in The Inspector are those of the author alone. They are offered to initiate thought and debate, however, they do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, its officers, directors or its editorial staff.

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