How to Improve Laboratory Safety by Developing a Chemical Management Plan

improving laboratory safety
Accidents at several chemical facilities have motivated companies to adopt new plans to improve laboratory safety.
Image source: Flickr CC user Vivien Rolfe

It’s hard to believe that last month marked the third anniversary of the West Fertilizer Company explosion. In some ways, it seems just like yesterday that the disaster dominated headlines. But enough time has passed that we’ve seen the passage of multiple bills seeking to prevent another deadly accident of this magnitude. Unfortunately, we’re also still hearing reports of tragic incidents across the United States. It’s ironic, as such accidents should make us more careful. To make matters even worse, these scenarios aren’t unique to North America either. Last summer, a warehouse explosion shook the Chinese port city of Tianjin. And as if coping with the aftermath weren’t enough, several government officials were arrested for contributing to the safety lapses that caused the disaster.

In a move that will seem familiar to those employed at North American facilities, a Chinese regulatory agency released a working plan outlining how to improve laboratory safety and supervision of hazardous chemicals throughout the country.1 Among the main points of the plan are efforts to promote proper chemical management and to encourage employees to assume responsibility for maintaining workplace safety. Like other safety-related guidance drafted after tragic events, the hope is to minimize the possibility of another Tianjin. Considering that the explosion had far-reaching repercussions with regards to human life, public property and even port functionality, prevention is certainly within the Chinese government’s best interests.

Regulations Highlight How to Improve Laboratory Safety

Laboratory safety, however, is a moving target and the United States continues to update measures regarding chemical safety. For instance, the EPA recently proposed revisions to their Risk Management Program. The changes seek to improve chemical process safety and to aid local personnel in developing emergency response plans.2 While some critics claim the proposal may place a heavy burden on local emergency planning committees and subject facilities to third-party audits, supporters believe otherwise. After the West Fertilizer Company explosion, the EPA identified a handful of chemical facilities that failed to comply with federal safety standards. Today, at least two are said to remain in violation.3 Clearly, there exists a disconnect between knowing that a safety plan must be developed and actually implementing it.

Firms Must Continually Improve Laboratory Safety

While it may be tempting for companies to assume their chemical safety management programs are adequate, the increased scrutiny and oversight of regulatory agencies suggest otherwise. Even if they do pass muster, legislation seems to be trending more stringent with each passing year and firms should prepare for the eventuality that they may have to adapt in order to adhere to these higher standards. When considering what areas need bolstering, organizations can look at recent safety proposals and examine the incidents that led to them. Armed with these insights, they can then turn their attention internally to determine if any improvements are needed.

  • Chemical storage: Many recent incidents were the result of improper storage. In one case, flammable materials were even stored in a wooden cabinet. Clearly, this oversight stemmed from a failure to refer to updated safety data sheets that contain such information. Chemical management plans must ensure that materials are stored in the appropriate containers, which minimize the risks of fires and explosions.
  • Hazard communication: Hazard communication is one of the most common violations cited by OSHA each year. Organizations must ensure that not only do they maintain a written hazard communication plan, but that they also educate their employees about its contents and safe chemical handling procedures. One way to do so would be to make sure that all employees have access to important hazard information, which in many cases means switching from dusty, paper binders stored on a forgotten shelf to a cloud-based system.
  • Emergency response planning: In instances where facilities store extremely hazardous materials, they should coordinate with surrounding localities about what to do in case of an accident. More than one accident was the result of emergency personnel operating with incomplete information—an oversight that often exacerbated the situation. At the very least, emergency personnel should have access to an accurate, up-to-date inventory of hazardous material stored on site.

With constantly evolving chemical handling regulations, organizations should continually think of how to improve laboratory safety. In most cases, that improvement can be supported by a developing a chemical management plan if one is not already in place. If a company already has a chemical management plan, then the organization should ascertain whether it is optimized for their needs. In this way, industries can protect its employees, the public, and its reputation.

BIOVIA CISPro is a flexible chemical management system that can be optimized for the needs of companies, both large and small. It supports chemical inventory tracking through from on-site arrival to disposal. By replacing outdated, paper-based systems with a cloud-based platform, all users have access to important information at any time. Inventory-linked safety data sheets provide crucial facts about potential hazards, storage requirements and remediation. If your organization is looking for a tool to help its efforts to comply with changing safety regulations, then please contact us to learn more or request a demo.

  1. “China releases work plan to improve chemical handling safety,” March 24, 2016, https://chemicalwatch.com/45879/china-releases-work-plan-to-improve-chemical-handling-safety
  2. “Environmental and Energy: Proposed EPA Revisions to RMP Rule Could Increase Burden on Chemical Facilities (3/16),” March 31, 2016, http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/environmental-and-energy-proposed-epa-85774/
  3. “EPA knows which plants violate rules — but it can’t tell you,” April 11, 2016, http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060035384