Thirty Years of Lab Safety

From mouth pipetting to automated liquid handling, life-science labs have gotten much safer over the past three decades.

Oct 1, 2016
Michal Barski


The public’s view of the scientific endeavor often conjures up stereotypical imagery: a begoggled and lab-coated researcher sitting in a stark room operating ergonomically designed technology. But as anyone who has actually worked in a lab knows, that picture could not be further from the truth. Working experimentalists are generally more than familiar with foul smells, contamination mishaps, cluttered and clunky equipment, and space shortages. Since the dawn of science, the issue of safety in the confinement of the experimental arena has been a significant problem—even if it was not recognized as such.

The price of some of the most transformative scientific discoveries was the health of their discoverers. Beyond the famous case of Marie Curie-Sk?odowska, Robert Bunsen, the inventor of the ubiquitous Bunsen burner, lost his eye in a lab explosion and nearly died from exposure to the arsenic compounds he had synthesized. High-ranking scientists attempting to isolate fluorine lost their lives in explosions or from poisoning. It is also rumored that Galileo permanently blinded himself by observing the sun through one of his telescopes.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, health-related hazards were considered an almost inevitable consequence of conducting science. To quote the brilliant organic chemist August Kekulé: “Who does not ruin his health by his studies, nowadays will not get anywhere in Chemistry.” A lot has changed since Antoine Lavoisier sparked the “chemical revolution” more than 200 years ago. The last century has seen an increasing awareness of the risks of laboratory work, and the rapid expansion of biomolecular sciences towards the end of the millennium created never-before-encountered types of hazards, requiring new approaches.

The past 30 years have been thankfully free from many previously common but dangerous lab practices such as in-lab smoking, washing hands in benzene, and tasting reagents. One can see evidence of a new culture of lab safety in the layout of modern labs. Offices are typically completely separated from laboratory spaces, for example. This arrangement was rare in the mid-1980s, but is now common practice.

Lab managers have also grown more aware of the occupational hazards at the bench. High-quality, flame-resistant materials are now commonplace, and gas fixtures have largely disappeared from biological labs. Every aisle is now equipped with an emergency shower, there are designated areas for working with radiation, and separate sinks for laboratory work and hand washing.

Perhaps the most significant change in lab-safety protocols over the past three decades involves the practice of mouth pipetting. Veteran life scientists could likely compete on what was the most dangerous substance they have accidentally gulped while mouth pipetting. Even solutions of pathogenic cultures or radioactive isotopes were pipetted this way in decades past. Although statistical data on lab incidents are very hard to collect and interpret, from the mid-1970s up until the 1990s mouth pipetting was a known cause of lab-acquired infections (Clin Microbiol Rev, 8:389-405, 1995). Cases of infections acquired in this way were still occasionally reported in the late 1990s. Mechanical pipettes or automated liquid-handling systems gradually became a lot more accessible and affordable, and now they’re fixtures in most life-science labs.

With all the improvements in lab safety, how comfortable do researchers actually feel? A 2013 Nature review (493:9-10, 2013) largely based on a survey conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that 86 percent of scientists said they felt their labs were safe places to work, but almost half of them had experienced or witnessed a lab accident that resulted in an injury on at least one occasion. Thirty percent of these cases involved a severe injury.

Beyond these surprising statistics, recent years have seen dramatic lab accidents and casualties in both the U.S. and the U.K. The UCLA survey was prompted by the death of a research assistant, who succumbed to burns suffered in a tragic lab fire in the university’s Molecular Sciences Building in 2009. Just two years later, a lab accident at Yale University claimed the life of a 22-year old student. And in the U.K. in 2007, foot-and-mouth disease swept through southern England after the virus escaped from the Pirbright Institute for Animal Health. Just two years ago, investigators conducting a routine inventory check at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, found vials containing live smallpox virus lying abandoned in a general-purpose cold-storage room.

The improvement in lab safety in the last few decades has been largely driven not only by societal and technological change, but also by funding available for the maintenance of lab facilities, training of personnel, and the appointment of dedicated safety officers. Many developing countries are still struggling with the proper upkeep of their research institutions, which consequently affects the safety of those facilities. While in the next 30 years we will surely see a further evolution in laboratory technology and practice, we still have plenty to learn from past and current mistakes.

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