Improving Safety Compliance through Lab Design

Making it easy for staff to comply with lab safety regulations can help improve compliance

Photo portrait of TRACY WIEDER, MBA
Tracy Durnan, MBA
Photo portrait of TRACY WIEDER, MBA

Tracy Durnan, MBA, has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager and director roles, including overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. She is now a program director at the University of Chicago.

ViewFull Profile
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Published:Sep 01, 2021
|4 min read
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Laboratories are dangerous places to work, and laboratory workflows are different than workflows in other types of work settings, requiring specific lab safety regulations. These regulations help keep clinical lab staff safe, but can be difficult for staff to comply with in a badly designed space. To improve compliance with lab safety regulations, a shift is needed from putting the onus on employees to comply, to making it management’s responsibility to make it easy for lab staff to comply. 

The following guidelines can be used in both new laboratory buildouts and existing laboratory settings to help design better laboratory spaces with lab safety compliance in mind, keeping staff safer. 

Note that the numbered tips below correspond with numbers on the below lab design floorplan.

Design considerations for new lab constructions and lab renovations

New lab construction projects and renovations present excellent opportunities to design lab spaces that make it as easy as possible for lab staff to be safe. 

1. Locate staff desks outside of the lab

One of the most common lab violations in the United States is food/beverage in the lab. Providing staff with desks that are located outside of the lab allows them to drink their coffee and keep their water bottles at their desks for use when they are performing computer work. Placing desks inside labs, where staff must sit when doing computer work, ignores staff needs and often leads to eating and drinking in the lab. Going to the break room to drink water, coffee, etc., is often unrealistic for lab staff who are busy and trying to get their work done. They do not have computers in the break room, so taking time away from their many tasks for a drink is often not feasible. 

2. Locate staff offices in proximity to both the lab and the break room

A great design is to have shared lab staff offices located right off the lab, with a door that leads into the lab on one side, and a door that leads to the kitchen/break room on the opposite side. The kitchen/break room then also has a door on its other side leading out to non-lab common areas. This design allows lab staff to enter the work suite and walk straight into the kitchen/breakroom without entering a lab area to store their food, and then walk directly to their desk again without entering the lab to put their beverages onto their desks. When staff need to enter the lab, they can do so through the door in their office that leads to the lab. If the door between the office and the lab is kept closed, lab staff can safely eat and drink while at their desks, and at the same time, can grab a quick drink or snack when they have a few minutes available. 

3. Identify your electrical needs, then add more

New laboratories are too often built with too few electrical outlets, which leads to the dangerous practice of using extension cords to get the power where it needs to be. To prevent the use of extension cords and power strips, which can catch fire if frayed, cracked, or improperly grounded, include all the electrical outlets a lab should need into the lab design, then anticipate future needs and add more. 

Clinical lab manager

Enhancing an existing lab

If you are unable to renovate an existing laboratory to better engineer safety design, there are still several options to help staff comply with the safety regulations designed to keep them safe. 

4. Mount holders for safety glasses near areas of the lab where hazardous materials are used, such as where human blood samples are processed

Another one of the most common safety violations is the lack of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). It is easy for lab staff to become complacent about safety when it comes to hazardous materials that they have handled dozens of times without incident. Proper PPE is critical to keep lab staff safe. Having safety glasses and other PPE mounted prominently in the area where they are needed within easy reach of lab staff is one way to ensure these items are used.

5. Use effective signage, not more signage

Many labs have signage in place to remind staff of safety rules, but the signage is wordy and difficult for busy staff to absorb. For example, many lab staff are confused when it comes to the proper segregation of materials such as chemicals and gases. To make it easy for lab staff to understand what is required to properly segregate these items, post brightly colored infographics prominently in the lab near areas where these items are stored to help staff easily identify how to properly segregate items that when combined, can have disastrous consequences. 

Clinical pathology labs are excellent examples of where an understanding of how to properly segregate chemicals is critical. For example, clinical pathology labs commonly use reagents that are incompatible with each other, such as acetone and nitric acid, which, when combined, can form a dangerous gas. Having colorful and easy to understand signage in place reminding staff to avoid combining incompatible reagents could potentially prevent a major lab accident.

6. Consult regulatory and Environmental Health and Safety staff

Work with regulatory and Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) staff to ensure the existing lab environment is safe, and that you are not missing any important safety issues that could lead to injuries, such as where equipment is set up in relation to fire safety and required clearance for egress. EHS can also evaluate proper placement of sinks in the lab, as well as fire sprinklers/fire extinguishers, and advise on where lab staff can, and cannot, eat and drink in the area, as well as on required signage and proper chemical segregation.

7. Place a table outside of the lab for easy access to food and drink

To allow staff easier access to their drinks when their desks cannot be located outside of the lab, or are too far away to access quickly during the day, a table can be placed close to the lab entrance, outside of the lab area, where staff can place their drinks for quick access when time does not allow for a run to the break room. 

Rather than expecting lab safety compliance in an environment where adhering to those regulations is unrealistic, recognizing that lab design does not always support the way that lab staff work is the first step toward finding effective solutions for laboratory staff to help keep them safe.