How to Handle a Laboratory Emergency

Prevention is critical, but clinical laboratory staff must also be prepared

Tracy Wieder, MBA

Laboratory safety is about preventing accidents and emergencies in laboratory settings. Laboratory emergencies occur when, despite our best efforts, a serious accident that has the potential to endanger the health of our staff happens anyways. This article will address how to respond to potential emergencies that clinical laboratory staff may encounter.Would you know what to do if someone in your lab caught on fire? How about if someone were being electrocuted? Let’s dive into some of these scenarios. 

You just spilled a tube of human blood on your lab coat. What should you do?

Blood and bodily fluids have the potential to spread infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV to workers who mishandle spills. All bodily fluids should be assumed infectious.

If  you spill a tube of  human blood on your lab coat, wearing gloves, remove contaminated clothing and place it into a biohazard waste bag. Ensure there is no blood on the floor, benches, or any other clothing. If  blood is found on any surfaces, such as floors or countertops, clean them with a 10 percent bleach solution. Remove any additional contaminated clothing and place it in a biohazard waste bag. Put on a new lab coat and dispose of  biohazard waste according to your institution’s policies.

A member of your lab is unplugging one extension cord from another when his or her metal necklace catches on the exposed prongs of the cord that is still connected to a wall outlet. The employee is thrown to the ground and is actively being electrocuted. What should you do?

Cut off  the electrical supply if  it can be done easily and very quickly (e.g., remove the plug from the wall). If  the electricity cannot be cut off  very quickly, then remove the employee from the electrocution source using a non-conductive material, such as rubber gloves or a wooden dowel. Never touch an employee that is being electrocuted with bare hands as you will also be electrocuted. Then seek medical attention for the employee who was being electrocuted. 

Note that extension cords are never recommended in laboratory settings and certainly connecting multiple extension cords together is a huge no-no. Some types of  clinical labs, depending on the state where they are located, are prohibited from using extension cords by the regulations that apply to their facility.

You just arrived to work in your lab on a cold winter day. After taking your coat off, you go to the fume hood where you pour 100 percent ethanol into a 1L beaker. You then wipe your hands on your wool sweater just before reaching back into the fume hood to turn on a hot plate. Suddenly a shock of static electricity ignites the ethanol fumes in the hood and your clothes catch fire. What should you do? 

Drop to the ground, roll, and smother the fire with a fire blanket or lab coat. After the flames are put out, the elevated temperature of  the skin continues to cause damage. Run the skin under cold water for 20 minutes to bring the temperature down. Then seek medical care. 

It is important to note that static electricity can be an ignition source. In this scenario, the lab worker wiped his or her hands on a wool sweater, which can cause static electricity. In addition, cold temperatures make air dry, which can also cause static electricity. The best way to prevent static electricity is to increase the humidity in the air. 

You walk into a pathology lab at your institution to ask a friend a question. Just as you walk in, you bump into a lab bench and a glass thermometer falls onto the floor and breaks. Since this is not your lab, you do not know what type of thermometer (mercury or alcohol) it was. What should you do?

Most thermometers in today’s lab facilities are filled with alcohol, rather than mercury; however, it certainly is possible that a mercury thermometer is being used in the lab as they are more accurate for measuring higher temperatures than alcohol thermometers. 

Mercury is silver in color. It is highly toxic to the brain and nervous system and particularly fatal to fetuses. Alcohol thermometers are not toxic and the alcohol is usually colored red or blue for easy visualization. If  you do not see any silver beads on the floor and only observe a red or blue liquid, you can clean the spill up using gloves and paper towels, being careful not to cut yourself  on the broken glass, and dispose of  clean-up materials in the lab’s broken-glass disposal container. If  you see silver mercury beads on the floor, then you need to take great care in cleaning up the broken thermometer and mercury:

  1. Put on latex or vinyl gloves. Place two garbage bags outside of  the contaminated area and bring another one with you inside the contaminated area to use during clean-up.
  2. Using paper towels, carefully pick up the larger pieces ofglass and wrap the paper towel around the glass pieces. Place the paper towels with glass inside into the trash bag you brought with you into the contaminated zone.
  3. Use stiff  cardboard or index cards to sweep smaller pieces of  glass and mercury beads into a pile. Shine a flashlight onto the area of  the spill as well as surrounding areas to help identify beads of  mercury that may have traveled away from the area of  the original accident. Be sure to check very carefully looking into hard-to-reach areas (cracks and corners) to locate all mercury beads. Use paper towels to clean up the remaining glass and small beads of mercury and place them into the trash bag.
  4. Sprinkle sulfur powder over the area of  the mercury spill and rub it into the contaminated area, paying special attention to cracks and corners. Sulfur powder binds with mercury to clean up any remaining mercury particles that you were not able to identify. Clean the sulfur/mercury combination up well with several rounds of  paper towels dampened in water. Place all items into the garbage bag.
  5. Carefully remove your latex/vinyl gloves and place them into the trash bag. Place any shoes or clothes that came into direct contact with mercury during the clean-up into the trash bag.
  6. Carefully seal the trash bag. Then place this trash bag into a non-contaminated trash bag and seal the second trash bag well.
  7. Contact your institution’s environmental health and safety group immediately to inform them that you have cleaned up a mercury spill and follow their procedures for disposing of  the waste bag.
  8. Place all clothes or shoes that did not come into direct contact with the mercury into the second fresh garbage bag and take the bag outside. Remove items from the trash bag and air them out outside for at least 24 hours. Once the items are aired out, you may wash them and wear them again.

If  you do not have the proper supplies to clean up the spill, move away from the contaminated area immediately and call your environmental health and safety group for assistance with clean up. Notify all lab staff  to stay out of  the room. 

You just splashed hydrochloric acid in your eyes. What should you do?

Immediately move to an eyewash station. If  you cannot see well enough to do that, call for your lab mates to help you. Rinse your eyes for at least 15 minutes, holding your eyelids open. Remove any contaminated clothing and then seek medical care.

A member of your lab just slipped on some water on the floor, fell straight onto his or her back, and cannot get up. What should you do?

Immediately call 911 and give them your location. Do not move the person who has fallen as you do not know how severe the injuries may be. Approach your lab mate carefully, so as not to fall yourself. If  your lab mate is conscious, calmly instruct him or her not to move and explain that help is on its way. Keep your lab mate as still and calm as possible until help arrives. 

These are just a few of  the vast number of  emergency scenarios that you may face in your day-to-day work in the lab. I urge all labs to discuss past emergencies as well as current near-misses and current emergencies, in an effort to continually learn and improve their emergency responses. Practice is also crucial. It’s a great idea to conduct regular emergency drills so staff  can practice what to do in the event of  these emergency scenarios. Lab safety is important and prevention is key, but we are all human and mistakes happen. In the end, we need to know what to do when, despite our best efforts, the worst happens.

Tracy Wieder, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.