Items from eyewear to respirators and even organizational skills can keep scientists safer.

Any life science lab contains items or organisms or even technologies that can endanger researchers or even people beyond the walls of the lab. Consequently, researchers should always strive to stay safe, and a key step involves personal protection equipment, known in the industry as simply PPE.



A range of respirators protects researchers from toxic exposure while providing comfort. (Source: 3M) 

Sometimes, improvements in PPE make perfect sense after thinking about it for even a moment. For example, you can purchase prescription safety glasses from a range of companies—including Hi-Tech Optical, Rx-Safety, and SafeVision. Likewise, Uvex by Honeywell makes safety glasses and goggles with a variety of features, including anti-fog and anti-scratch coatings. Grainger even provides stick-on bifocals that just need water to bond to eyewear to add a spot of magnification where needed.


The level of PPE that a researcher needs, however, depends on the job at hand. Moreover, protecting your personal safety in the lab depends on planning, protective equipment, and information. Without that trio of techniques, even minor mistakes can turn deadly.

Battling Biological Agents
Personal safety really turns more critical when a lab works with biological agents. Literally speaking, this phrase could cover lots of territory, but in the biosafety world, a biological agent tends to be a microorganism or some sort of pathogen that can cause human disease. “The primary purpose of PPE,” says LouAnn Burnett, president of the American Biological Safety Association, “is to provide a barrier to prevent contact or exposure to a person working on biological materials or materials that could contain them.”

For example, she says, “A respirator can filter out those agents.” She adds that researchers working on biological agents, depending on the risk of those agents might need protective clothing, such as a lab coat, eyewear or face protection, gloves and even a respirator for agents that can cause infection if inhaled. Although she adds that few biological agents can penetrate the skin, she says, “Something like a needle stick is hard to prevent with PPE.”

When working with biological agents, PPE protects the researcher, as well as people beyond the lab. “It helps to prevent contamination,” Burnett says, “because you wear it in a certain area and then take it off. So you’re not spreading the agents to animals, plants or people.” Burnett clarifies that range of concerns when she adds, “A biological agent might not harm a healthy human, but it could devastate a plant or animal population.”

The Materials Matter
Different labs create their own potential hazards, and researchers must perform varying tasks. “Different materials offer different barrier and comfort aspects,” says Kim Dennis MacDougall, a research scientist in the safety division at Kimberly-Clark Professional. For example, a material can be designed as a fluid barrier but not necessarily provide pathogen protection. The former must pass the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) F1670 test, and the latter must also pass the ASTM F1671 test.

“If clothing is uncomfortable in terms of heat or restrictive,” says MacDougall, “that can make a person less dexterous and maybe less patient. It also affects their speed and the efficiency of their work.” So Kimberly-Clark Professional developed a microporous film that, as MacDougall says, “allows you to have a liquid barrier and comfort that lets perspiration evaporate through the material, but it blocks pathogens.” This material is tested against particles smaller than HIV, and the company uses it in its KLEENGUARD* A60 Apparel, which includes aprons, lab coats and coveralls. As MacDougall emphasizes, though, “You can’t trade comfort for protection.”

KLEENGUARD* A60 apparel

The mircoporous material used in KLEENGUARD* A60 apparel blocks pathogens but lets perspiration escape. (Source: Kimberly-Clark Professional)

Gloves also keep getting better. Although latex provides dexterity and fit, it triggers allergies in some people. So Kimberly-Clark developed gloves, such as the KIMBERLY-CLARK* KC100 LAVENDER* Nitrile Exam Gloves. “They provide the dexterity and tactile familiarity of latex,” MacDougall says. “They are very thin but still durable.”

When it comes to gloves as part of a scientist’s PPE, MacDougall says that many researchers don’t know when to wear thin-mill versus thick-mill gloves. “In most cases,” she says, “it boils down to expectations of exposure, what you know about the material that you might be exposed to and how much your dexterity will affect the likelihood that an accident will occur.” If exposure protection outstrips the need for dexterity, go with thick-mill gloves.

Grainger also carries HexArmor gloves that provide cut resistance.

The Devil’s in the Details
Just having PPE does little good and failing to wear it correctly proves dangerous, too. “None of it’s tricky,” Burnett says, “but how you put something on is as important as what you put on. The classic example is putting on a lab coat and not buttoning it.”

Likewise, researchers only use PPE when it’s available. To make sure that a lab keeps its stock of PPE and develops the proper protocols, they can talk to Dan Young, director of services for Unity Lab Services, a part of Thermo Fisher Scientific. He says, “We interact with researchers and discuss their environment and the degree of PPE that they need, whether it’s a gown and glasses or a BSL-3 [biosafety level 3] bunny suit.” He adds, “It’s a maddingly complex situation that can drain productivity if the environment is not supportive of helping researchers get in and out of the environment—from, say, a dirty area to a clean one—as quickly as possible.”

That process turns to mud without the right PPE in place. “Imagine the frustration,” Young says, “when you try to gown up and they don’t have the right booties or they’re out of gloves.” Young and his colleagues can come into a lab, help the researchers assess their processes and needs, and then develop a system to maintain optimal inventory levels so proper PPE supplies are never out of stock.

The details behind safety can also come from tools that researchers use. In some cases, these can even be tools used over centuries, like a funnel. To make a safer funnel, CP Lab Safety developed the ECO Funnel. As explained by Carel Thomas, marketing manager at CP Lab Safety, “This is a very unique safety funnel with a lid that has a gasket, a positive latch, sturdy hinge and is available with a variety of screw caps to fit common lab waste containers. When the chemist is finished pouring solvents/chemicals, he or she simply closes and latches the lid and 99.9 percent of the volatile fumes are stopped.” This helps keep the lab air clean and aids employers in reducing employee exposure to harmful chemicals. These are available in a system that includes a 4- or 8-inch ECO Funnel, container and secondary container. Some of the funnels are designed for use in tight spaces, such as inside a fume hood. “ECO Funnels are widely used in government, university, biotech and pharmaceutical laboratories worldwide,” says Thomas.

If a team needs to polish its safety skills, video training can be purchased from a range of vendors, including Safety Instruction, Safety Video Source, and The Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI).

ECO funnel

The ECO funnel closes after use to block volatile fumes. (Source: CP Lab Safety)

Improving the Products
The researchers want PPE that protects them but does not reduce their ability to work efficiently. “The most difficult thing about PPE for biological agents,” says Burnett, “is that it’s a barrier and, by it’s very nature, somewhat uncomfortable.” She points out two areas for improvement: being able to move and stay cool enough. “It’s hard to get people to wear something uncomfortable.”

Sometimes, a respirator might seem like one of the most uncomfortable pieces of PPE. Improving performance and comfort can be a challenge due to the wide variety of respirators available. Researchers choose between half-face disposable respirators that cover the nose and mouth and consist of filter material or the rubber half-face respirators that include replaceable cartridges. “When used properly,” says Nicole Vars McCullough, global technical services manager in 3M’s occupational health and safety division, “these respirators can help to reduce exposure up to 10 times.” Full-facepiece respirators cover the whole face, and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) include a motor/blower and battery, and they supply air to the user. “A PAPR that includes a hood that comes down over your shoulders, can help reduce exposure up to 1000 times,” says McCullough.

3M strives to make its respirators more effective and comfortable. “We can build in an exhalation valve to make respirators easier to breathe through,” says McCullough. “We also use different materials for the straps to improve comfort.” She adds, “The key is to have a respirator that performs well, but if it’s not comfortable enough that workers keep it on their face, it doesn’t do them any good.”

Still, the performance of a respirator also depends on how it gets used. “You need to check the seal every time you put it on,” McCullough says. She adds that users need to follow proper cleaning procedures for reusable respirators and replace parts if they get worn. “You also need to know when to change filter cartridges,” McCullough says.

In the end, staying safe in a lab depends on the scientist. You are only as safe as your equipment allows and how you use it. Plus, you must properly take care of and maintain your PPE. In the end, taking shortcuts risks your own safety and that of your colleagues.

This article was published in Bioscience Technology magazine: Vol. 6, No. 6, June, 2012, pp. 16-17.