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January 26, 2009 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Good resources for rules-of-thumb for laboratory dangers and chemical safety?

I'm looking for an answer to this question posed in the comments section of a blog, which didn't really receive a satisfactory answer (the link to the NIOSH pocket guide was along the right lines, but not exactly easy to read). I'll just copy it down here:

Does anyone know of a resource (perhaps online) for practical warnings wrt the usage of chemicals? I've always been frustrated with the uselessness of MSDS (which makes sodium chloride sound like a hazardous substance) and the warning labels on the bottles aren't much more helpful. I wish there were some compendium of practical knowledge about how to deal with particular chemicals. For example, a colleague recently informed me that osmium tetraoxide is really bad for your eyes. I'd never have known that if he hadn't told me. Derek's TMS-diazomethane story is another example of useful knowledge that you wouldn't necessarily get from reading the label on the bottle.

Is there someplace where people can separate out the really really bad stuff from the "fine as long as you don't eat it" stuff and provide specific tips on safe handling?
posted by you're a kitty! to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen this?

The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards (link to .pdf)

The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards provides a concise source of general industrial hygiene information for workers, employers, and occupational health professionals. The Pocket Guide presents key information and data in abbreviated tabular form for 677 chemicals or substance groupings commonly found in the work environment (e.g., manganese compounds, tellurium compounds, inorganic tin compounds, etc.). The industrial hygiene information found in the Pocket Guide assists users to recognize and control occupational chemical hazards.
posted by aquafortis at 2:19 PM on January 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for "rules of thumb" for laboratory dangers, you're doing it wrong.

No offense, but if you can't read the NIOSH Pocket Guides or MSDS datasheets in order to parse out the relevant information, you shouldn't be handling the chemicals in question. At the very least, you shouldn't have to ask questions like you are - even in my college introductory chemistry class, respirators/fumes hoods, googles, and lab jackets were used even with sodium chloride.

I don't mean this as an insult; as a non-chemist, I know that I shouldn't be handling raw chemical ingredients without much specific research. In a similar vein, as an electrical engineer, I'm comfortable working with even the most sensitive digital hardware since I can parse the relevant safety information. However, I wouldn't trust myself to handle radio frequency equipment without prior research, as I don't consider myself qualified to work in that area otherwise.
posted by saeculorum at 2:49 PM on January 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've used this page in the past, but it might not have all the information you want and it's hardly a complete index.

Obviously the legal disposal requirements are going to be different from one country to the next.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:51 PM on January 26, 2009

I absolutely agree with saeculorum. I realize you didn't write the original comment about sodium chloride, but if one thinks the MSDS for NaCl and HF look equally scary, they don't know enough to work in a lab.

That said, you can usually obtain practical advice to complement the MSDS by googling "(chemical) SOP". Read enough of these and you'll even find out (or figure out) the most common accidents involving (chemical).
posted by Mapes at 3:04 PM on January 26, 2009

I want to emphatically second saeculorum.

While my last brush with lab work was a long time ago, I think the comment that inspired this question is misbegotten in a number of ways. I realize you're not endorsing this but this bears very clear response:

The MSDS is the foundation of chemical laboratory safety. The commenter's objection to them is inane. One of the first things I was taught in a real research laboratory was that I was never to work with a compound I was not well acquainted with without first reviewing its MSDS.

Let's take a look at the MSDS for Sodium Chloride: yes, it lists effects of NaCl (eye irritation, gastric distress if you ingest large quantities). Not one of these descriptions is inaccurate or overblown. Reading that is not going to give you some sort of weird ideas about how hazardous salt is. All of its safety ratings are zero or mild.

Let's take a look at the MSDS for Osmium Tetroxide: CAUSES SEVERE IRRITATION TO EYES: Health and Contact ratings of 4 (Extreme): "Eye Contact: Conjunctival edema and corneal destruction occur. Symptoms are pain, tearing, blurred vision (halos around lights) and photophobia. Eye effects can have insidious cumulative action with latent periods."

a colleague recently informed me that osmium tetraoxide is really bad for your eyes. I'd never have known that if he hadn't told me. Well, maybe that's because you've decided that the MSDS, the gold standard for chemical reagent safety data, isn't an important part of your safety approach, so you never read these clear, explicit warnings.

The worst possible attitude to go into lab work with would be okay, I've got a bunch of rules of thumb here so if I don't see a red flag situation I'm safe. Assuming you are in too much danger may waste some time, assuming you are too safe may wind up killing you. The story that inspired the comment thread you linked to is sad but the accident was preventable. The individual in question appears to have skipped a (probably tedious) safety protocol with a very flammable reagent. They weren't wearing a lab coat that would have helped protect them from fire. There was a safety shower six feet from them but they ran in the wrong direction. They didn't take the danger seriously enough. They hadn't drilled into their minds what they had to do in the worst case scenarios. They had probably worked with the reagent many times. How much harm can 60 mL of a liquid really do? The majority of laboratory fatalities are preventable. Every lab process needs a researched, thought out safety procedure. Every lab worker needs to understand these procedures and follow them (and general lab safety procedures) to the letter. That is how lab safety is achieved.

There is a good resource listed in that thread, Chemical and Engineering News' Safety Letters which details safety issues, sometimes newly discovered ones.
posted by nanojath at 3:23 PM on January 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sorry, here's that osmium tetroxide msds.
posted by nanojath at 3:29 PM on January 26, 2009

Response by poster: No offense, but if you can't read the NIOSH Pocket Guides or MSDS datasheets in order to parse out the relevant information, you shouldn't be handling the chemicals in question. At the very least, you shouldn't have to ask questions like you are - even in my college introductory chemistry class, respirators/fumes hoods, googles, and lab jackets were used even with sodium chloride.

No offense taken, and I apologize if the question came off as overly casual about safety. We have a safety rep I speak to and proper channels for chemical disposal and all that, I have plenty of guidance and procedures around me, and I feel comfortable with and fully informed about everything I personally do in the hood. So I'm not looking for last-word information here, and I wouldn't work with anything until I felt that I understood its dangers completely. What I'm looking for is a way to get an overview of relative risks when I'm considering employing a process that will require a given chemical - which is different than actually going in to use it for the first time. I'm just looking for a starting point that's easier to skim than the MSDS (which I do actually have proper respect for) - I'm not going to read some colloquial website and go splashing acids over my body, if that's the concern.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:33 PM on January 26, 2009

Well I'll be the voice of dissent.

As a practicing lab chemist, I find the datasheets to be largely useless. I've often wished for specifically this: a practical list of organic reagents of this sort.

Do you know how many other chemicals also include the phrase "causes severe irritation to eyes..."? Almost all of them. I mean, this is from the MSDS for sugar: "Irritating to the skin and eyes on contact. Inhalation will cause irritation to the lungs and mucus membrane. Irritation to the eyes will cause watering and redness. Reddening, scaling, and itching are characteristics of skin inflammation. Follow safe industrial hygiene practices and always wear protective equipment when handling this compound."

Not quite the dire warnings of OsO4, but this is for something you put on your food. How on earth can that possibly be informative?

My answer to the question: contribute to the Not Voodoo list.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 3:42 PM on January 26, 2009

I really don't think you'll find an easier resource to use than MSDS sheets, since most of us bench researchers think the MSDS sheets are entirely adequate "compendiums of practical knowledge" and are therefore unlikely to take the time to research and write another guide.

TMS-diazomethane isn't labeled as explosive? Really? The ordering page on Sigma-Aldrich's site says it is, and I'd be really surprised if the bottle wasn't clearly labeled.

On preview: Dr. Enormous, the MSDS for glucose also gives it health ratings of 0. It tells you a respirator isn't necessary to use, and only recommends using safety goggles for PPE (which you should be wearing in a lab regardless of what you're working on, anyway).
posted by Thoughtcrime at 4:01 PM on January 26, 2009

Well, my experience is that "the MSDS is largely useless" is an overstatement, but a reflection of the beliefs of many bench researchers in organic chemistry (I can't speak to other areas). The document is trying to be informative to researchers, industrial plant operators, and janitors all at once, and in doing so loses value.

WIthout looking, which are the most and least dangerous for routine lab work : conc H2SO4, iodomethane, and acetonitrile? I certainly know what my preferences for lab work would be, and I bet I'd get the same rankings from most organic chemists.

But if you look at the MSDS, the sulfuric acid is rated highest, with acetonitrile and iodomethane pretty equivalent. Which makes sense from the perspective of a manufacturing or process plant, or a group of painters looking for something to clean off the inside of a tank with (there are recorded MeCN deaths from this), but isn't really relevant to benchtop work.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:40 PM on January 26, 2009

The [MSDS] document is trying to be informative to researchers, industrial plant operators, and janitors all at once, and in doing so loses value.

This is really a valid point, and this question as framed in you're a kitty!'s follow-up (the thread quote in the original posting framed the question poorly I think) is very sensible.

One element I think is definitely missing from something like MSDS sheets is anecdotal and contextual information; in the research lab the devil can be very much in the details. I don't know of a uniform resource for this, here are some links I've found (my current career is in researching quality assurance procedures and best practices, and safety is not the central issue but it's always relevant:

I haven't figured out the exact intersection between the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the American Industrial Hygiene Association, but this page has a number of good resources on lab safety, including a section on "lessons learned" (a lot of situational/anecdotal although much of this is more industrial-oriented) and also other forums you might research this question in (see near bottom).

The Center for Chemical Process Safety's AIChE Web Knowledge Base (note 3 separate links there).

I know not exactly what you are looking for (I am approaching things from more of a standards/regulatory angle than pre-assessment for experimental development) but it looks like there might be some relevant resources in there.
posted by nanojath at 7:43 PM on January 26, 2009

Argh, it just ate my post. Essentially, I was saying to look at the risk and safety statements on the label, and the DG class/es and Packaging Group in the transporting info.

The DG classes give you the overall risk type, and PG will give you the level of that risk, "I" for low, III for very high. The risk statements will give you more detail about the risks, for example, osmium tetraoxide has the risk statement "R41: Risk of serious damage to eyes" which is as strongly worded as it gets for eye risk. Most chemicals have "Avoid contact with skin and eyes", but if there's no associated risk statement, it's meant more as a general "it's not good to put chemicals in your eyes" than "it will hurt".
posted by kjs4 at 8:25 PM on January 26, 2009

This is a complex and difficult problem. Different chemicals do different things and a naive approach to chemical safety is one of the classic things that leads to people getting hurt. Sorry to be so blunt, but this is one subject where you cannot be too informed. There is no Chemical Safety for Dummies, because being ignorant of the risk of the chemicals you handle tends to be a very Darwinian experience. If you don't want to take the time do do your own research (and there are very good reasons for not doing so), you pretty much have to trust your H&S person and follow their instructions carefully, even if they seem over the top. That said, if the topic interests you, there are quite a number of resources out there.

The NIOSH guide is probably the most current and best-organized concise reference you'll find. There are two other short guides worth mentioning in this context: Forsberg and Mansdorf's "Quick Selection Guide to Chemical Protective Clothing" (~70$); and the ACGIH TLV/BEI publication (~40$). If you are concerned about lab safety (eg as an OSH rep), you should have all three at your disposal. The NIOSH guide is a free download, the other two are commercial.

MSDS's can be useful, but the language they use is very formulaic and frustratingly tends to both be exhaustive (for human health effects) and incomplete (typically for environmental effects) at the same time. There's a move afoot to improve them (they are pretty much useless to a bench chemist), but don't hold your breath. A better source of information is the TOXNET database, but that's very much a primary data source. It's great information, but can require a fair bit of interpretation. The CDC's ToxFAQs are really good and probably very much what you're looking for, but they only cover a handful of the most common industrial chemicals.

Protection, and in particular, glove companies can be excellent sources of information. Both Best and North make chemical safety guides. North's is here (pdf).

The transportation guides (for "hazardous materials" in the US, or dangerous goods in Canada and the rest of the world) are somewhat useful, but are much more geared to firefighting and other response requirements. The harmonized reference for North America is the Emergency Response Guide (ERG2008). As a government publication, like the NIOSH guide, this is free.

This only scratches the surface, but these publications and websites are the cream of the crop. This is a rapidly evolving field, stuff we thought was safe only a few years ago is turning out to be a lot less safe than we thought. For example, DO NOT rely on any safety figures more than a couple of years old at the most. Always try to seek the most current guide for things. The NIOSH, ACGIH and Forsberg all update every couple of years at least. Don't rely on old information, particularly in the form of old MSDS's.
posted by bonehead at 9:34 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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