Chemical Splashes Happen: Here's How to Protect Lab Workers

Lab coats have been used for decades and are primarily intended to keep contaminants off a person's clothing and skin. Historically, lab coats were made of cotton or a cotton/polyester blend. Today, these types of garments are still used in many research and clinical settings.However, cotton and polyester materials do not adequately protect lab workers from one of the most common and potentially harmful lab mishaps: chemical splashes.

Instead of being repelled by the protective clothing, the liquids are absorbed and can soak through to the skin. What's more, cotton and cotton-blend lab coats can make an already-dangerous laboratory accident even worse if flammable or combustible chemicals are used and they ignite.

Is it time to upgrade your staff's lab wear? Keep reading for a review of common laboratory hazards and the essential personal protective equipment (PPE) that can protect against these hazards.

Lab Safety Statistics

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), more than 500,000 people are employed in laboratories in the United States. Like workers in other industries, lab workers can suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders, such as back pain or slip-and-fall injuries.

However, due to the unique nature and demands of the laboratory setting, lab personnel (including scientists, technicians, students, and environmental services staff) also have an elevated risk of harm due to exposure to hazardous materials, including chemical, biological, physical, and radioactive agents.

Because of the inherent hazards associated with lab work, OSHA, as well as state and local agencies, employ various safety regulations for this setting (including OSHA's Laboratory standard, 29 CFR 1910.1450). However, accidents can and do happen, even with stringent safety standards in place. One 2019 study in Nature investigated lab safety and found several concerning trends based on survey data, including the following:

  • Nearly 40% of lab researchers have been involved in an accident or sustained an injury that was not reported to an immediate supervisor or principal investigator
  • About the same number of researchers endorse wearing appropriate PPE at all times while working—suggesting that a significant proportion of lab personnel are not consistently protecting themselves at work
  • Close to 30% of researchers fail to conduct appropriate risk assessments prior to initiating laboratory work

What Are the Most Common Laboratory Accidents?

Some of the most commonly reported laboratory accidents involve:

  • Fire, combustion, and explosions
  • Cuts and abrasions
  • Absorption, ingestion, and inhalation of chemicals (through the skin, mouth, and nose)

These accidents often involve specific chemical hazards that lab personnel must contend with, such as:

  • Exposure to fumes or materials that develop due to chemical reactions
  • Airborne hazards (e.g., particulates, gases, vapors, and aerosols)
  • Nanoparticles and nanomaterials
  • Biological hazards (e.g., viruses, bacteria, plants, pathogens, animals, and genetically modified organisms)

Lab accidents, including chemical splashes, can occur in a range of situations: while conducting experiments,handling and disposing of waste, storing and transporting materials, or through physical and mechanical hazards (e.g., heating and cooling devices, heavy machinery, instrumentation, steam, and pressure).

Chemical Splashes: Health Effects and Complications

Chemical splashes—events in which hazardous materials are accidentally spilled, projected, aerosolized, or otherwise spread within a laboratory environment—can impose a wide range of acute and chronic health effects to those exposed.The specific type of injuries and illnesses that develop depend on several factors, including the type of chemical spilled, the duration and amount of exposure, and the individual's specific health characteristics.

Possible health effects of chemical splashes include:

  • Chemical and thermal burns (on the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes)
  • Respiratory distress
  • Disfigurement
  • Poisoning and toxicity
  • Increased risk of long-term health problems including cancer, organ damage,or infertility

In extreme situations, accidental exposure to hazardous chemicals in the laboratory can lead to shock,organ failure, coma, and/or death. We can look to notable case studies for context.

In 1997,a researcher from Dartmouth College named Karen Wetterhahn died from mercury poisoning—10 months after she accidentally exposed herself to the deadly neurotoxin dimethyl mercury while working in a laboratory. According to reports, Wetterhahn was wearing a face shield and latex gloves at the time of the accident (she spilled a drop of the compound on her gloved hand). She did not realize the severity of the incident at the time and did not begin to notice complications until five months had passed.

Wetterhahn's story paints a sobering picture of what can happen when workers are accidentally exposed to chemicals that are commonly found within the lab. These chemicals include a broad range of compounds, such as:

  • Oxidizers: Inorganic Nitrates, Nitrites, Permanganates, Chlorates, Perchlorates, Iodates, Periodates, Persulfates, Chromates, Hypochlorites, Peroxides, Perborates (ex: Potassium Perchlorate, Calcium hypochlorite, Sodium nitrate, Sodium iodate, Ammonium persulfate, Sodium peroxide)
  • Flammable liquids: Methanol, Ethanol, Acetone, Xylene, Toluene, Ethyl acetate, Tetrahydrofuran, Ethyl ether, Benzene, Dimethylformamide, Acetonitrile, Hexane, Pyridine, etc.
  • Poisons/toxic chemicals: Acrylamide, Formaldehyde, Glutaraldehyde, Chloroform, Phenol, Methylene chloride,Silver chloride, Cadmium sulfate, Mercury acetate, Barium carbonate, Lead acetate, Biological stains
  • Air and water reactive compounds

As noted by the Office of Research Facilities of the National Institutes of Health (NIH),even compounds that are considered "non-hazardous"—such as surfactants and buffers—could contain preservatives that can be toxic, so care should be taken with any and all materials within the lab.

Other Impacts of Chemical Splashes

Chemical splashes should be prevented (or quickly contained) to protect not only lab personnel, but also to protect others from unintended consequences. These may include:

  • Cross-contamination (workers might inadvertently expose their families and communities to hazardous materials)
  • Environmental harm (e.g., pollution, spill-off, waterway contamination)
  • Costly and potentially dangerous damage to laboratory equipment (e.g., in the event of corrosive and flammable materials)

Preventing Chemical Splash: Precautions and Strategies in the Workplace

Important work is conducted every day in clinical and research laboratories around the world. Such lab work has transformed our understanding of many important processes in areas like health, medicine, psychology, technology, and epidemiology, and plays an indispensable role in future innovations across a broad range of industries.

But while it's clear that laboratory work and research is here to stay, it's also clear that accidents can and do occur within this diverse setting. To mitigate these risks and promote a culture of safety within all laboratory environments, organizations should utilize the following strategies:

  • Ensure all lab personnel have clear and ready access to eyewash stations (and know how to operate them)
  • Run safety drills and compliance modules to prepare staff for quick action in the event of an emergency
  • Practice sound laboratory safety habits, such as never eating or drinking in the lab, properly storing chemicals, routinely inspecting equipment, and using good hand hygiene
  • Ensure all lab personnel know how to properly don, doff, store, and dispose of PPE

PPE for Chemical Splash Protection: What to Have on Hand

A lab worker should understand the specific type of PPE they'll need for their job by consulting with their supervisors and referring to relevant regulatory and safety materials, including Safety Data Sheets.

In general, PPE specialists recommend the following for chemical splash protection:


Laboratory workers play important roles in research, development, and innovation across a broad range of industries. It is essential to protect these individuals from chemical splashes, which can cause a wide range of negative health and environmental effects. Keep your workforce and community safe by ensuring your laboratory staff has access to high quality and appropriate PPE, as well as comprehensive and ongoing safety and risk management training.

International Enviroguard is a leading manufacturer of a diverse range of OSHA-compliant, disposable PPE that will meet the needs of your workforce. Contact us today to learn more about our chemical resistant PPE or our chemical-and-flame-resistant PPE.