Lab safety rules: 5 things you need to remember when working in a lab

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To stay safe in a lab, you have to remember a number of important lab safety rules to ensure that you come out in one, healthy piece. Review the 5 safety rules below in order to get a handle on the basics.

1. Dress appropriately

  • Before entering the lab, make sure to put on a lab coat. The coat should always be worn with the sleeves rolled down.
  • Wear closed shoes. Open shoes, such as sandals, are a no-go as a falling item could injure your feet and a potential acid spill could damage your skin.
  • Long pants are a must, as skirts and shorts expose the skin to dangerous chemicals.
  • Avoid loose sleeves, as they are impractical when working.
  • Tie back long hair. Loose hair could catch fire when working with a Bunsen burner.
  • Only bring the things you need into the lab. That means you should leave all of your personal items, such as bags and jackets outside. Also, take off your watch and jewelry before entering the lab.
  • Remember safety goggles, even if you wear glasses. Normal glasses aren’t sufficient in protecting your eyes.
  • If you wear contact lenses, makes sure to follow the laboratory safety instruction. In some labs, it’s forbidden to wear contact lenses altogether because if you get chemicals in your eyes, the liquids can get trapped under the lenses.
  • Wear gloves for safe handling of corrosive chemicals. There are different types of gloves for different types of chemicals, so make sure to use the correct ones.
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2. Keep a tidy lab

  • The fume hood is a ventilated workbench that protects you from hazardous fumes. It only works if air is flowing, which you can check by sticking a small piece of paper into the hood. You should work with the sash down, and usually, there will be a mark that shows how far you can move the sash up, without compromizing airflow.
  • To ensure chemical safety, chemicals need to be stored in designated cabinets and never just left on the floor.
  • Make sure the glassware you use is always clean and dry. This should be the responsibility of the person who used them last, but never just assume that glassware left in a sink is clean enough to use. If it happens to be contaminated with chemicals, it could alter the results of your experiments.
  • Make sure all emergency exits are clear. There should be two in the lab.
How many safety hazards can you spot in the lab?
  • Keep your lab bench tidy and make sure that there are no hazardous chemicals in the way when you start a new laboratory experiment.
  • Food and drinks are strictly prohibited in the lab, and with good reason – imagine if someone accidentally grabbed a bottle of chemicals instead of their soda and took a sip!
  • Clean up broken glass. Did you know that broken glass is the most common cause of injury in labs? Unfortunately, it happens far too often that glass isn’t cleaned up properly after breaking. There are designated containers in the lab where you can throw it away safely, so be sure to use them.
  • Remember to put labels on your work. On samples, make sure to write what it contains as well as your initials so everyone sharing the lab knows they belong to you.
How many safety hazards can you spot on the workbench? Find the rest in our Lab Safety virtual lab.

3. Know your lab safety symbols

In the lab, there are two commonly used types of hazard symbols: The GHS hazard symbols and the Fire Diamond.

The GHS hazard symbols and their meanings are listed in the figure on the labpad below.

Do you know the GHS hazard symbols?

The Fire Diamond shows the dangers associated with hazardous material. There are4 squares in different colors, and in each square (except the white one), there is a number ranging from 0-4, where 4 is the most hazardous. Red indicates flammability, blue indicates health and yellow indicates reactivity. The white square indicates a special hazard.

Can you read this Fire Diamond?
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4. Handle chemical spills properly

  • If there's a chemical spill on accident, try to remain calm and figure out what it is. You should immediately warn everyone that something has been spilled.
  • Never touch, smell or in any other way interact with the chemical before you know what you are dealing with.
  • If you spill a large amount, make sure you evacuate the lab, and call the emergency personnel.
  • If you spill a small amount, and you know what has been spilled, you can go ahead and clean it up. In the case of acids or bases, the spill needs to be neutralized. Do not use water to clean these up. To neutralize an acid spill, use baking soda (a weak base) and to neutralize a base spill, use acetic acid (a weak acid). Pour these on the chemical before you discard the spill in the correct waste container. Remember to remove your gloves once you’ve been in contact with chemicals, as they may be contaminated.
  • If you spill on your clothes, take off that piece of clothing and rinse your skin with water.
  • If you spill chemicals on yourself or someone else, make sure to get them to the safety station as fast as possible, and flush the affected area thoroughly.
  • In case you forget your goggles and get chemicals in your eyes, hurry to the safety shower and rinse your open eyes for at least 20 minutes. Then, immediately consult a doctor.

5. Know your laboratory safety equipment

  • Fire blanket: This is made of non-flammable fibers. Use it for small fires, or for covering yourself in case you are fighting a larger fire. Never wrap a person whose clothes are on fire in a fire blanket, as it can create a chimney effect and cause burns on the person’s body and face. Instead they should roll on the floor to try to put out the fire, or step under a safety shower if there is one in close proximity.
  • First aid kit: This contains disinfectants, bandages and other things that can be used to treat minor injuries, such as cuts.
  • Fire extinguishers: There are different types of fire extinguishers: CO2 and foam. The foam extinguisher, also called an ABC extinguisher, can be used for most fires. Never use a CO2 fire extinguisher on a person, as it is extremely cold.
  • Safety shower: Use this to wash yourself in case you come into contact with dangerous chemicals. If your clothes catch fire, the safety shower should also be used.
Which types of safety equipment can you spot?

Before leaving the lab, you’ll need to make sure it’s thoroughly cleaned so it’s ready and safe to work in again. Make sure to clean all used glassware, return reagents to the storage area, dispose of waste in the right containers and clean your workbench.

Always wash your hands to make sure you don’t carry any traces of chemicals with you. This is particularly important if you plan to eat afterwards – imagine if you transferred a toxic chemical to your food!

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