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Chemistry Safety Guide

Safety is a key concern in any scientific enterprise, but particularly so in the chemistry lab. There are many potential hazards when working with chemicals, but all of them can be avoided with the appropriate precautions.

Safety in the lab is everyone's responsibility.  It requires the proper safety attire and equipment, knowledge of the chemicals you are working with, and proper lab procedures and techniques.


This video by Hank Green is an entertaining but accurate list of some of the top dangers and safety precautions for a chemistry lab.
This video by Hank Green is an entertaining but accurate list of some of the top dangers and safety precautions for a chemistry lab. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=VRWRmIEHr3A

Safety Attire and Equipment

When working with chemicals, chemical safety goggles, gloves, and a lab coat should be the first pieces of equipment on your list. Advanced experiments sometimes require special equipment, such as a fume hood. Experiments that require the use of specialty safety equipment may require that you work in the lab of a teacher or mentor.

It is important to know that all gloves are not created equal, and that gloves made of different materials might or might not provide a resistant barrier to certain chemicals. For example, latex and nitrile gloves are commonly available at grocery stores for safe food handling, but latex gloves are not resistant to acetone, which is a common chemical solvent found in nail polish remover. Each glove manufacturer provides a glove compatibility chart that you should use to check with the chemicals you will use for your experiment. The Environmental Health and Safety Office at the Franklin & Marshall College provides a good resource on Glove Compatability Charts and other information on choosing chemical resistant gloves with links to information from glove manufacturers.

The American Chemical Society has excellent safety information in the following pamphlets (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader). We highly recommend reading them before starting your chemistry experiment:

Resource Best used for:
ACS, 2001a. Safety in the Elementary (K-6) Science Classroom, Second Edition, American Chemical Society (ACS). This pamphlet is best for experiments that don't use hazardous or toxic materials. It is a good resource for general laboratory safety issues, and is appropriate for elementary school students (grades K-6).
ACS, 2001b. Chemical Safety for Teachers and Their Supervisors, Grades 7–12, American Chemical Society (ACS), Board Council Committee on Chemical Safety. This pamphlet is best suited for experiments that use mildly hazardous or toxic materials (like weak acids/bases) and will cover disposal issues. It also covers general laboratory safety, and is best for secondary school students (grades 7-12).
ACS, 2003. Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories (College level), American Chemical Society (ACS), Board Council Committee on Chemical Safety. This pamphlet is suited for experiments that use hazardous or toxic materials (like strong acids/bases, carcinogens, neurotoxins, etc.) and will cover disposal and regulatory issues. It also covers general laboratory safety, and is best for advanced students working with a mentor (college undergraduate level).

Hazards of the Chemicals You Will Use

You also need to know the potential hazards of the chemicals you will use, and plan accordingly. Since every chemical has its own set of properties, it might seem impossible to anticipate all of the potential hazards. For example, some chemicals require special disposal procedures, and cannot be dumped down the drain. The first safety procedure when working with a chemical is to ALWAYS read the label!

Fortunately, chemical hazards can be grouped into four different areas:

  1. Flammability - for chemicals that readily burn
  2. Corrosivity - for chemicals (like strong acids and bases) that destroy tissue by chemical action
  3. Toxicity - for chemicals that are poisonous
  4. Reactivity - for chemicals that undergo spontaneous chemical reactions, or readily react with other chemicals

As a responsible scientist, you should understand these four properties for every chemical that you use in the lab and in your experiment. You can find essential safety information on the label of the container of any chemical, and also on the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the chemical, available from the supplier. The MSDS provides basic information on a material or chemical product. The MSDS describes the properties and potential hazards of the material, how to use it safely, how to dispose of it safely when you are done, and what to do in an emergency. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) provides a guide to understanding the MSDS, and also a sample MSDS:

Proper Laboratory Technique

Before starting any experiment, you should understand the entire procedure that you will be following. You need to make sure that you have the proper equipment, and that you know how to use it. When you are trying an unfamiliar procedure for the first time, it is a good idea to practice at least one "dry run" without chemicals. That way, you can make sure you have all the materials you will need at hand, and that your workflow will proceed smoothly. You will greatly reduce the risk of an accident by carefully planning ahead.

Using proper laboratory techniques will increase your level of safety in the lab. Here are some tutorials on proper laboratory techniques:

Resource Description
MIT OpenCourseWare: Digital Lab Techniques Manual Excellent video tutorials on measuring volume, weighing chemicals on electronic balances, titration, filtration, and many more.
UC Davis ChemWiki: Lab Techniques Online depository covering detailed descriptions and tutorials of many basic chemistry lab techniques
Ohaus: Balance Tutorials  Tutorials on using basic mechanical and electronic balances to weigh materials.

Disclaimer

Although every effort is made to assure and encourage safe practices and safe use of the materials in our project ideas, Science Buddies cannot assume responsibility for uses made of its published materials.  We strongly urge all those planning to use materials from our webpages to make choices and to develop procedures for safety in accordance with local needs and situations.

Many chemicals are hazardous. Precautions for the safe use of hazardous chemicals and directions for their proper disposal are described in the Material Safety Data Sheets and on the labels. For a more straightforward description of a chemical's potential hazards, consult the Chemical Laboratory Information Profiles maintained by the American Chemical Society. This database also lists safe handling. To find out additional information on a wide variety of chemicals, including emergency and disposal procedures, consult the Chemistry Material Safety Data Sheets maintained by the Iowa State University.