5 Ways to Get Students Energized about Lab Safety

Grace Chukwuekwu

Many laboratories pose significant risks, and avoiding laboratory accidents requires constant care and vigilance.

Some precautions to take when entering the laboratory include wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for each task and wearing appropriate clothing that covers your entire body. This includes closed shoes and long pants. Avoid loose-fitting clothes and make sure long hair is tied into a knot. Otherwise, they will get in the way and can be dangerous when working near a fire.

It is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke, and store food and drinks in the laboratory refrigerator and the laboratory must be kept clean and tidy. All emergency exits also must be clean. Chemicals should be stored in suitable cabinets to avoid accidents.

Keep reading to discover why this can be a daunting topic for teachers and students,  five suggestions for changing it, and thoughts on why virtual labs can make things easier.

Figure 1: Hazard pictograms and their meaning.

Why laboratory safety can be tricky

Here are three reasons why laboratory safety can be difficult, even for the most diligent of students.

1. It can be annoying

Wearing a lab coat is mandatory in most laboratories and can be very uncomfortable in hot weather. Lab coats should only be worn in the laboratory to avoid possible contamination. Lab coats should be long-sleeved and buttoned to fully protect skin and clothing from splashes. Lab coats should also be washed frequently on-site or by a  professional laundry service.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is equipment worn to minimize exposure to serious injury and illness in the workplace. All PPE  must be worn as soon as you enter the laboratory and worn at all times. Depending on the work in the laboratory, there are different aspects of personal safety.

2. It’s content-heavy

The workplace hazard symbols are easy-to-understand pictograms that allow for quick identification of hazards. They are part of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Right (8) black and white symbols of hazards in 8 red diamonds displayed include

  1. The flammable symbol is a flame placed over the horizontal line. 

  2. The compressed gas symbol is a gas canister.

  3. The corrosive symbol is double horizontal test tubes draining liquid, one tube causes part of a huge black line to be eroded, and the other tube drains onto and injures a hand. 

  4. The oxidizing symbol is a sphere that has been set ablaze on top of a straight line.

  5. The harmful symbol is a mark of exclamation within a lab.

  6. A health hazard is a portrait of a human with a white star drawn across it.

  7. The toxic symbol is a human cranium below a crossed bone.

  8. The explosive symbol is a blowup of a huge black circle.

3. It’s complicated

Unlike spilling a glass of water, chemical spills must be handled with care. In the event of a chemical spill,  it is important to remain calm, warn everyone around, and analyze the situation. It is important to understand chemical spills and the hazards they pose before embarking on a cleanup strategy. Depending on  the amount and  type of chemical involved, spills are  classified as minor and  major spills:

  1. Minor spills: Spills that laboratory personnel can lean up without endangering themselves or others.

  2. Major spills:  involve large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals or reagents. Be sure to evacuate the lab and call the appropriate emergency personnel.

If a chemical is spilled on someone, the person should be taken to a containment station immediately and rinse the spilled area thoroughly. If an acid or alkaline spill occurs, the spill must be neutralized first. Strong acids can be neutralized with baking soda (a weak base) and strong bases with acetic acid (weak acid).

Fire outbreaks are other hazards observed in laboratories. There are  four  classes of fires, namely:

  1. Class A  combustible or common fibrous materials: wood, paper, plastic;

  2. Class B flammable or combustible liquids: paints, kerosene;

  3. Class C fire involves electrical appliances: switches,  control cabinets;

  4. Class D combustible metals: magnesium, potassium.

Most laboratories are equipped with multipurpose extinguishers (ABCs) which can be used for the first three classes. CO2  fire extinguishers are also very popular and they can be used on class B and C fires. Before extinguishing a fire,  make sure you have identified the nature of the fire; Otherwise, the situation could worsen.

If there is a fire in the lab,  stay calm and assess the situation. If the fire is very small, like a liquid in a bottle burning,  try to extinguish it by closing it. If the fire is out of control,  ensure the safety of everyone near the fire. Turn off the fire alarm and press the switch to turn off all the machines in the lab. If you are trained to use firefighting equipment and it is safe to do so,  try putting out a fire. Immediately evacuated if the fire is out of control!

What to do when a person is on fire. The most effective way to extinguish burning clothing is to roll on the floor. Never wrap a fire blanket around a burning person as this can create a chimney effect and burn the person's face. If an emergency shower is nearby, use it to extinguish the fire and cool the burn.

5 ways to make laboratory safety procedure a more approachable topic

With those points in mind, here are five things you can incorporate into laboratory safety classes to make them more engaging, convenient, and fun for you and your students.

1. Show the people behind the science

A dramatic example of the danger of an unsafe laboratory is the sacrifice of Marie Curie (1867-1934), who received the Nobel Prize for discovering radium and coining the term "radioactivity". Her contributions to humanity and health care are enormous,  but she showed laxity around radioactive elements after knowing the health hazards. Both Curie and his chemist's daughter died of blood disease from radiation exposure. And their laboratory books - which remain radioactive to this day and for another 1, 600 years - are still kept in boxes coated with lead metal in France.

2. Relate it to the real world

Corrosive chemicals can permanently change any material on contact. These chemicals can damage materials ranging from human skin tissue to steel. The main types of corrosives include strong acids, bases, and dehydrating agents.

Protective clothing must be worn when working with corrosive materials,  including wearing appropriate eye protection, a lab coat, gloves, closed shoes, and long-sleeved clothing. Corrosive materials should be handled in fume hoods where there is a  risk of explosion or chemical splash. Some  tips to  keep in  mind  in the lab are:

  1. Be sure to label all your samples with your contents,  potential hazard, date, and initials.

  2. Make sure to track every step you take and pay attention to the chemicals used.

  3. Place all organic waste in the bio bin. It must then be transported to an autoclave or to an incinerator that can incinerate contaminated hospital waste.

  4. After the experiment and before leaving the laboratory, wash your hands with a disinfectant soap.

  5. Entry: By tracking every entry in the lab,  it is possible to know who is responsible if something goes wrong and to maintain security,  access is usually restricted to those who need to use the lab.

  6. Training: No one is allowed to enter the laboratory unless they are under training and supervision. Individuals without proper training are a  danger to themselves, their co-workers, their research materials, and the environment.

  7. Work surfaces could be cleaned with an appropriate disinfectant at the end of each working day and floors should be regularly cleaned with a disinfectant.

  8. Wear gloves when handling biohazards or hazardous chemicals. Always check what type of glove is being used for a particular chemical.

  9. Respiratory protection may be required when working with volatile chemicals. Contact the lab supervisor to provide the necessary training.

  10. After the experiment is complete,  clean all glassware used,  return reagents to their proper storage containers,  dispose of waste in suitable containers, and clean the workbench with ethanol. Ensure a strict set of precautions are followed to ensure a  safe exit.

3. Seeing is believing

The laboratory has  the following  safety devices:

  1. Emergency shower and eyewash station. Both should be tested weekly to make sure they are working properly and the water is clean.

  2. Fire extinguishers are usually located near the entrance.

  3. Two emergency exits on different sides of the lab. This ensures that nothing can get trapped in the event of a fire. Make sure emergency exits are clean at all times. Evacuation plans should be posted near exits.

  4. Fire blankets can be used to put out a fire or for protection.

  5. First aid kits are used for minor injuries such as cuts.

Finally,  be sure to test your safety equipment regularly to ensure each item is ready in case of an emergency, an apron should be worn when working with splash hazards, and volatile or reactive solutions that easily pass through lab-coated fabrics.

4. Make it stick with word-play

Reminders are a  great way to remember important details.

Lab safety skills

The eight hazard pictograms in the figure can be  seen as FETCHO, the letters 'CH' representing  two  of each of the hazard symbols, arriving thus at:

F - Flammable symbol

E - Explosive symbol

T - Toxic symbol

C - Compressed gas symbol

C - Corrosive symbol

H - Harmful symbol

H - A health hazard

O - Oxidizing symbol

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A unique way to teach laboratory safety is through a virtual laboratory simulation. At Labster, we’re dedicated to delivering fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that utilize gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems, inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe.

Check out the Labster lab safety simulation that allows students to learn about lab safety through active, inquiry-based learning. In the simulation, students will go on a mission to help some street basketball players understand how safety in the laboratory can be given the priority it deserves.


Learn more about the lab safety simulation here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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