The Most Common Injuries in a Chemistry Lab

The Spill
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There are a lot of hazards in a chemistry lab. You've got chemicals, breakables, and open flames. So, accidents are bound to happen. However, an accident doesn't necessarily have to lead to an injury. Most common injuries can be prevented by minimizing accidents by being careful, wearing proper safety gear, and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency.

OSHA keeps track of reported injuries, but most of the time people get hurt, it's either not something they admit to or else not a life-threatening event. What are your biggest risks? Here's an informal look at common injuries.

Eye Injuries

Your eyes are at risk in the chemistry lab. If you normally wear contacts, you should wear glasses to lessen chemical exposure. Everyone should wear safety goggles. They protect your eyes from chemical splashes and errant shards of glass. People get eye injuries all the time, either because they are lax about wearing protective eyewear, the agent causing the injury gets around the edge of the glasses, or they don't know how to use the eyewash properly. While cuts are more common in the lab, eye injuries are probably the most common serious wounds.

Cuts from Glassware

You can cut yourself being stupid, trying to force glass tubing through a stopper with the palm of your hand. You can cut yourself breaking glassware or trying to clean up a mess. You can cut yourself on a sharp edge of a piece of chipped glassware. The best way to prevent the injury is to wear gloves, yet even so, this is the most common injury, mainly because few people wear gloves all the time. Also, when you do wear gloves, you lose dexterity, so you may be more clumsy than usual.

Chemical Irritation or Burns

It's not just the skin on your hands that is at risk from chemical exposure, although this is the most common place to get hurt. You can inhale corrosive or reactive vapors. If you're extra-stupid, you can ingest harmful chemicals by swallowing liquid from a pipette or (more commonly) not cleaning up well enough after lab and contaminating your food with traces of chemicals on your hands or clothing. Goggles and gloves protect your hands and face. A lab coat protects your clothing. Don't forget to wear closed-toe shoes, because spilling acid on your foot is not a pleasant experience. It does happen.

Burns from Heat

You can burn yourself on a hot plate, accidentally grab a piece of hot glassware, or burn yourself by getting too close to a burner. Don't forget to tie back long hair. I've seen people set their bangs on fire in a Bunsen burner, so don't lean over a flame, no matter how short your hair is.

Mild to Moderate Poisoning

Toxicity from chemicals is an overlooked accident because the symptoms may resolve within minutes to days. Yet, some chemicals or their metabolites persist in the body for years, potentially leading to organ damage or cancer. Drinking a liquid accidentally is an obvious source of poisoning, but many volatile compounds are dangerous when inhaled. Some chemicals are absorbed through the skin, so watch spills, too.

Tips to Prevent Lab Accidents

A little preparation can prevent most accidents. Here are some tips to keep yourself and others safe:

  • Know the safety rules for working in the lab (and follow them). For example, if a certain refrigerator is labeled "No Food," don't store your lunch there.
  • Actually use your safety gear. Wear your lab coat and goggles. Keep long hair tied back.
  • Know the meaning of lab safety signs.
  • Label containers of chemicals, even if they only contain water or other non-toxic materials. It's best to put an actual label on a container, because grease pen marks may be wiped off during handling.
  • Make certain safety gear is maintained. Know the schedule for purging the line of an eyewash. Check the ventilation of chemical fume hoods. Keep first aid kits stocked.
  • Quiz yourself to see if you're safe in the lab.
  • Report problems. Whether it's faulty equipment or a mild accident, you should always report an issue to your immediate supervisor. If no one knows there is a problem, it's unlikely to get fixed.
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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "The Most Common Injuries in a Chemistry Lab." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). The Most Common Injuries in a Chemistry Lab. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "The Most Common Injuries in a Chemistry Lab." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).