The 10 Most Important Lab Safety Rules

The science lab is an inherently dangerous place, with fire hazards, dangerous chemicals, and risky procedures. No one wants to have an accident in the lab, so it's imperative to follow lab safety rules

01
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The Most Important Lab Safety Rule

Smiling girl gesturing while surrounded by smoke
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Follow the instructions! Whether it's listening to your instructor or lab supervisor or following a procedure in a book, it's critical to listen, pay attention, and be familiar with all the steps, from start to finish, before you begin. If you are unclear about any point or have questions, get them answered before starting, even if it's a question about a step later on in the protocol. Know how to use all of the lab equipment before you begin.

Why is this the most important rule? If you don't follow it:

  • You endanger yourself and others in the lab.
  • You could easily ruin your experiment.
  • You put the lab at risk of an accident, which could damage equipment as well as harm people.
  • You could get suspended (if you're a student) or fired (if you're a researcher).
02
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Know the Location of Safety Equipment

Laboratory with Fume Hood
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In the event something goes wrong, it's important to know the location of the safety equipment and how to use it. It's a good idea to periodically check equipment to make sure it is in working order. For example, does water actually come out of the safety shower? Does the water in the eye wash look clean?

Not sure where safety equipment is located? Review lab safety signs and look for them before starting an experiment.

03
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Dress for the Lab

Scientist examining microbiological cultures in a Petri dish
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Dress for the lab. This is a safety rule because your clothing is one of your best forms of protection against an accident. For any science lab, wear covered shoes, long pants, and keep your hair up so it can't fall into your experiment or a flame.

Make sure you wear protective gear, as needed. Basics include a lab coat and safety goggles. You may also need gloves, hearing protection, and other items, depending on the nature of the experiment.

04
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Don't Eat or Drink in the Laboratory

Save your snacking for the office, not the lab. Don't eat or drink in the science laboratory. Don't store your food or beverages in the same refrigerator that contains experiments, chemicals, or cultures.

  • There is too much risk of contaminating your food. You could touch it with a hand that is coated with chemicals or pathogens or set it down on a lab bench that has residue from past experiments.
  • Having drinks in the lab risks your experiment, too. You could spill a drink on your research or lab notebook.
  • Eating and drinking in the lab is a form of distraction. If you are eating, you aren't concentrating on your work.
  • If you're used to drinking liquids in the lab, you might accidentally reach for and drink the wrong liquid. This is especially true if you did not label your glassware or used lab glassware as dishes.
05
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Don't Taste or Sniff Chemicals

Young male scientist smelling substances from test tubes.
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Not only should you not bring in food or drinks, but you shouldn't taste or smell chemicals or biological cultures already in the lab. Tasting or smelling some chemicals can be dangerous or even deadly. The best way to know what's in a container is to label it, so get in the habit of making a label for glassware before adding the chemical.

06
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Don't Play Mad Scientist in the Laboratory

Senior Scientist Chemist With Steaming Chemicals
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Another important safety rule is to act responsibly in the lab — don't play Mad Scientist, randomly mixing chemicals to see what happens. The result could be an explosion, fire, or release of toxic gases.

Similarly, the laboratory is not the place for horseplay. You could break glassware, annoy others, and potentially cause an accident.

07
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Dispose of Lab Waste Properly

Most labs have dedicated waste containers for sharps, biohazardous waste, radioactive waste, and organic chemicals.

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One important laboratory safely rule is to know what to do with your experiment when it's over. Before you start an experiment, you should know what to do at the end. Don't leave your mess for the next person to clean up.

  • Are the chemicals safe to dump down the drain? If not, what do you do with them?
  • If you have biological cultures, is it safe to clean up with soap and water or do you need an autoclave to kill dangerous organisms?
  • Do you have broken glass or needles? Know the protocol for disposing of "sharps".
08
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Know What to Do With Lab Accidents

Accidents happen in the lab, so know how to respond before they occur.

 Getty Images/Oliver Sun Kim

Accidents happen, but you can do your best to prevent them and have a plan to follow when they occur. Most laboratories have a plan to follow in the event of an accident.

One particularly important safety rule is to tell a supervisor if and when an accident occurs. Don't lie about it or try to cover it up. If you get cut, exposed to a chemical, bitten by a lab animal, or spill something there could be consequences, and the danger isn't necessarily only to you. If you don't get care, sometimes you could expose others to a toxin or pathogen. Also, if you don't admit to an accident, you could get your lab in a lot of trouble.

09
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Leave Experiments at the Lab

Don't take chemicals or lab animals home with you. You put them and yourself at risk.

Getty Images/G Robert Bishop

It's important, for your safety and the safety of others, to leave your experiment at the lab. Don't take it home with you. You could have a spill or lose a specimen or have an accident. This is how science fiction movies start. In real life, you can hurt someone, cause a fire, or lose your lab privileges.

While you should leave lab experiments at the lab, if you want to do science at home, there are many safe science experiments you can try.

10
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Don't Experiment on Yourself

The premise of many a science fiction movie starts with a scientist conducting an experiment on him or herself. However, you won't gain superpowers or discover the secret to eternal youth. More than likely, whatever you accomplish will be at great personal risk.

Science means using the scientific method. You need data on multiple subjects to draw conclusions, but using yourself as a subject and self experimenting is dangerous, not to mention bad science.