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High-Hazard Chemical Safety: Tips for Preventing an Accident

The laboratory is an environment of innovation and discovery, but if risk isn’t managed properly, it can also be a dangerous place where employees are incessantly exposed to possible injury. To maintain health and safety in your labs, energetic materials such as dinitro, trintro compounds, peroxide formers, flammables, organic peroxides, oxidizers, pyrophorics, unstable reactives, and water-reactive solids and liquids must all be managed carefully and ultimately disposed of by high-hazard experts. The improper storage and handling of high-hazard chemicals in laboratories causes accidents to occur – a crystal forms in direct sunlight, or an uncapped bottle is exposed to air, and an explosion happens. An incident like this threatens the lives of your employees, the integrity of your equipment and research, and the liability of your organization.

In order to drive your organization to zero-error lab safety, you cannot just meet the bare minimums that OSHA and EPA regulations require of your organization. You need to uphold industry best-practices. Here are six techniques to keep your organization on its toes. 

Have an accurate, real-time inventory.

Maintaining an inventory of the chemicals at your site will help you to identify potential high-hazard material and to remove that material before it becomes a risk or must be handled as anchemical inventory tool explosive.

Creating this inventory and routinely updating it is not enough. You need to have a system in place to make sure that, whenever a new chemical enters a lab, it is added to the master inventory list. If you only update this list so often, you run the risk of new chemicals and potentially energetic materials slipping through the cracks. Supervision of these materials is essential to removing them from your labs before they expire.

If you have energetic materials in your lab, and you cannot affirm with absolute certainty that all items in your labs today are inventoried, then you need to take immediate action. Sweep your labs and identify containers of concern. Monitor those bottles or test them if you cannot determine the contents. Peroxides testing and explosivity testing will determine how high-risk the material is.

Having an automated inventory system rather than an Excel sheet allows you to easily have a comprehensive list of chemicals on-site. It also gives users at your site real-time access to update the document from their own computers. By tracking your inventory with a program like this, you avoid a situation where employees think that the organization or their department is in possession of materials that it isn’t, or the reverse. With multiple owners of the inventory, you also avoid issues with employee turnover, and you have a sustainable system that runs smoothly into the future.

Many organizations have an internal barcoding system where bottles are tracked upon first entrance to the lab and then later when disposal occurs. A system like this also allows automated monitoring of disposal deadlines, which is much easier than manually tracking limits in an Excel sheet. However, if you do have a barcoding system, think about how you cover potential scan fails or system malfunctions. You should have a catch methodology in place to pick up anything that your scanning system might miss. An annual reconciliation of your inventory is a good starting point. 

Make sure that employees are properly labeling chemicals. 

Just as a chemical should enter your organization’s inventory upon first entrance to the lab, it should also be labeled right away. Mislabeling chemicals can easily lead to disaster. A researcher could take a peroxide-former that is mislabeled put it in direct sunlight, or forget to test periodically if there is no label at all. All organic peroxides should have labels that alertflammable liquid management handlers to the peroxide-forming contents. Labels for these chemicals should also include a space for the following dates: received on, opened on, and re-test or disposal. You will need similar labels for multi-nitro compounds such as picric acid, picrylsulfonic acid, and dinitrophenol.

Labeling requirements have two parts – first, make sure that correct labels are being placed on all bottles; second, ensure that your employees who handle these chemicals are able to recognize the hazards associated with each type of chemical. Both of these aspects trail back upstream to training. If bottles in your labs have incorrect labels, or none at all, or your employees are not handling bottles according to proper protocol, then they may not aware of chemical hazards, handling requirements hazards, or consequences of improper management.

Schedule a walk-through of your facility, and take note of any chemical bottles that do not have labels. You might consider bringing in a high-hazard expert to your sight. This person can assess any bottles that are missing label information and identify the risk of chemical containers that need to be carefully handled (a peroxide-former that has formed crystals, et cetera).

It should be clear who is responsible for labeling. Is it the responsibility of your environmental, health, and safety (EH&S) department? Or do you have a department dedicated to inventorying? Are your researchers trained to do it themselves? You need to provide lab safety training and confirm competency of those involved. 

Implement and monitor proper storage.

To review national guidelines for the proper storage, use, and handling of hazardous materials in your facility, reference the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 400: Hazardous Materials Code, NFPA 45 Fire Protection in Laboratories. 

As a best practice for storing energetic materials, keep potential explosives in a cool, dry place such as a cabinet. This will prevent these items from drying up. Do not leave high-hazard bottles out on a lab bench, uncapped, in warm places, or in direct sunlight. Bottles that contain dinitro or picric need to be completely closed, because water can evaporate and dry the chemical out. Materials like this need to be 30% water at all times, or else they become potentially explosive.

Here’s a review of how each high-hazard material should be stored:

  • Flammable, reactive, toxic, and corrosive compressed gases should all be stored in a cool, dry area, at least 20 feet away from oxidizing gases. Cylinders should be securely strapped to a wall or bench top. Some gases need to be stored in a ventilated flame cabinet.
  • Inorganic and organic acids should be stored in a separate, lined or protected acid storage cabinet or plastic secondary container.
  • Corrosive bases such as ammonium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or sodium hydroxide should be stored in a separate storage cabinet.
  • Explosives such as picric acid should be stored in a secure location away from all other chemicals. Do not store these chemicals in an area where they can fall.
  • Flammable liquids such as acetone, benzene, diethyl ether, methanol, ethanol, hexanes, and toluene should be stored in a flammable storage cabinet.
  • Water reactive chemicals such as sodium metals, potassium metals, and lithium metal need to be stored in a cool, dry location that is protected from water and the fire sprinkler system.
  • Oxidizers must be stored in a spill tray inside of a non-combustible cabinet that is separate from flammable and combustible materials.
  • Toxics should be stored in chemically resistant containers, in a ventilated, cool, dry area. 

Complete regular lab cleanouts.

Don’t just settle for the regular waste collections that are required in order to stay in compliance. To catch any chemicals that have been sitting on shelves for extended periods of time but have yet to be characterized as waste, perform periodic laboratory cleanouts of old chemicals. To get everyone on the same page, department administrators or lab directors should meet with principal investigators, and lab safety coordinators to discuss the importance and technique. Make this process as easy as possible for researchers so that all they have to do is point out what can be disposed of; the easier the process, the more likely they will be to get rid of old bottles.

Depending on the size of your organization, lab cleanouts should be performed quarterly or once or twice a year. You will be surprised at how many chemical bottles turn up as waste – often times hundreds or thousands.

Centralize the purchasing of new chemicals.

If you purchase chemicals in an efficient manner, your organization minimizes waste but also maintains safety more effectively. The American Chemical Society estimates that unused chemicals make up 40% of lab waste. By streamlining purchasing through a central authority – whether it be one person or one department – you take unused bottles out of the equation. If you are not able to streamline the actual purchase this way, then at least try to have one person with waste minimization goals in mind become the approver of all purchase requests. Another important piece to standardizing purchasing is to ensure accurate estimates from researchers about necessary quantities of chemicals to be purchased.

For researchers who reason with you that it is more cost-effective and reliable to purchase chemicals in bulk, point out that when you factor in the pricing of surplus chemical disposal, the bulk chemical option ultimately costs more. To combat the reliability argument, consider using a chemical vendor who can deliver small quantities on short notice.

If you haven’t already, you should also consider standardizing chemical purchases by developing a list of chemicals that each experiment requires. If one researcher has surplus chemicals, another may be able to use these chemicals.

By improving supply chain management and enhancing communication between researchers about surplus chemicals available, you decrease the risk of energetic material accidents in your laboratories. 

Ensure that your onsite EH&S personnel are trained and experts on all safety hazards.

The employees responsible for health and safety within your organization’s labs need to be trained to inspect and to recognize outdated items, illegible labels, leaking lids, degraded containers, and crystalized contents in bottles.

Additionally, training needs to carry over to all of your researchers who handle highly-hazardous chemicals. If the knowledge about how to manage and recognize hazards with these chemicals resides primarily with EH&S, then it falls apart at the most important point – during the research.

To learn more about the management of peroxide-forming chemicals specifically, click below to download the five step guide, and get started toward ensure lab and employee safety.

Learn more about high-hazard chemical management with our peroxide former management guide at the link below.