Chemistry laboratory safety rules
Some rules are NOT made to be broken. That is true of the rules used in a chemistry lab. They are really, truly for your safety and not your humiliation.
Do not pipette by mouth – ever
You say, “But it’s only water.” Even if it is, how clean do you think that glassware really is? Using disposable pipettes? I know lots of people who rinse them and put them back! Learn to use the pipette bulb or automated pipetter. Don’t pipette by mouth at home either. Gasoline and kerosene should be obvious, but people get hospitalized or die every year right? I know someone who used his mouth to start the suction on a waterbed to drain it. Do you know what they put in some waterbed additives? Carbon-14. Mmmm… radiation. He couldn’t retch fast enough! The lesson is that even seemingly harmless substances may be dangerous!
Read the chemical safety information
A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) should be available for every chemical you use in the lab. Read these and follow the recommendations for safe use and disposal of the material.
No sandals, no clothes you love more than life, no contact lenses, and long pants are preferable to shorts or short skirts. Tie long hair back. Wear safety goggles and a lab coat. Even if you aren’t clumsy, someone else in the lab probably is. If you take even a few chemistry courses you will probably see people set themselves on fire, spill acid on themselves, others, or notes, splash themselves in the eye, etc. Don’t be the bad example to others, remembered for all time for something stupid!
Identify the safety equipment
And know how to use it! Given that some people (possibly you) will need them, know the locations of the fire blanket, extinguishers, eyewash, and shower. Ask for demonstrations! If the eyewash hasn’t been used in a while the discoloration of the water is usually sufficient to inspire use of safety glasses.
Don’t taste or sniff chemicals
For many chemicals, if you can smell them then you are exposing yourself to a dose that can harm you! If the safety information says that a chemical should only be used inside a fume hood, then don’t use it anywhere else. This isn’t cooking class – don’t taste your experiments!
Don’t casually dispose of chemicals down the drain
Some chemicals can be washed down the drain, while others require a different method of disposal. If a chemical can go in the sink, be sure to wash it away rather than risk an unexpected reaction between chemical ‘leftovers’ later.
Don’t play mad scientist
Don’t haphazardly mix chemicals! Pay attention to the order in which chemicals are to be added to each other and do not deviate from the instructions. Even chemicals that mix to produce seemingly safe products should be handled carefully. For example, hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide will give you salt water, but the reaction could beak your glassware or splash the reactants onto you if you aren’t careful!
This article was written by Anne Helmenstine, Ph.D. for Lab Manager magazine. Anne is an author and consultant with a broad scientific and medical background. She has been the About.com Guide to Chemistry since 2001.