7 Common Lab Accidents & Injuries (And How to Avoid Them)

Person lighting a bunsen burner in a lab. Updated on October 26th, 2023

Working in the lab can be a great way for students to gain in-depth knowledge of science topics and apply concepts while working cooperatively. Staying safe in the lab means knowing what dangers your students may encounter, as well as how to avoid them!

1. Fire

It's all fun and games until someone ignores the Bunsen burner!

When dealing with potential lab accidents involving fire, it pays to focus on preparation and prevention. Practice and review all safety procedures to minimize the risk of fires. 

When planning projects that involve flammable and combustible materials such as liquids, vapors, metals, gasses, and oils, instruct students how to gather the proper protective equipment and correctly apply each within the context of the specific project and materials involved.

Make sure all flammable and combustible materials in the lab are properly sealed and stored, and be sure to train students to inspect burners for any leaks to prevent sudden flares and eliminate the possibility of explosions.

Handling hot items hastily without the proper tools can result in serious heat burns. Teach students how to properly use tongs, water baths, and other cooling equipment, and stress the importance of never touching hot surfaces with a bare hand.

Common Injuries from Laboratory Fires:

  • Smoke irritation to nose and throat
  • Smoke irritation to the eyes
  • Skin irritations and minor burns
  • Burns to hands, arms, chest
  • Burns to face, hair, and scalp

2. Chemical Burns

A common injury that can occur in the lab is chemical burns. However, accidents and injuries can be prevented with careful safety planning and execution. The first step to preventing accidents is the safe storage of chemicals in the classroom. Before starting a hands-on activity involving chemicals, it is important to teach students how to store and use them effectively and why it is important to develop, communicate, and follow these procedures every single time.

Another essential safety lesson for future scientists is the importance of proper and consistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the lab, including wearing gloves and safety goggles when handling chemicals. Instructing students on the importance of treating chemicals with respect and caution, sharing information on the types of chemicals and the damages they can cause, and advising students to measure carefully and use only approved containers for transferring and containing potentially irritating chemicals is key. 

Common Injuries from Chemical Accidents in the Lab:

  • Skin irritations and burns
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritations and burns
  • Mild to moderate poisoning
  • Cuts from broken glass and other equipment
  • Strains, sprains, and bruises from slips and falls

3. Gas

Before students begin their hands-on investigations, the class should develop a safety plan together that includes detailed steps for responding to an accident in the lab. This is an important lesson in emergency preparedness and response that has wide reaching implications outside of the classroom as well. The procedures, including emergency contact information and steps for responding to an accident, should be posted in the classroom and reviewed before each lab begins.

Knowing what the most common accidents involving the use of chemicals in a lab are and how to prevent them is the best way to reduce injuries. Students who understand the risks of working with chemicals and how to prevent accidents are better prepared to keep their work area clean and safe, and conduct their investigations in a safe manner, using approved PPE. 

In addition, preparing the classroom for the safe storage and use of chemicals, and to respond quickly to an accident, will help minimize the severity of a chemical spill. For example, accidentally inhaling gasses in a poorly ventilated space can cause headaches, nausea, and even fainting. To reduce the risk, teach students the proper procedures for opening windows, using ventilation fans, and using equipment to measure the amount of gas emission in a room. Additional safety equipment, including face shields, lab coats, hands-free eye wash stations, safety showers, fire extinguishers, sand buckets, fire blankets, spill control kits, first aid kits, and chemical storage cabinets can help minimize the effects of accidents in the lab.

Common Injuries from Gas Accidents in the Lab:

  • Nausea and headaches
  • Injuries from falling after fainting
  • Injuries related to fire and explosion
  • Hypoxia

4. Spills and Breaks

Lab safety plans must also contain information on the safe clean-up and disposal of broken glassware. Accidents happen, and understanding what not to do as a result of a broken beaker or other piece of equipment can mean the difference between an injury or not. Safe housekeeping is an important part of any lab environment, including keeping work areas clean, inspecting all equipment for damage before use, disposing of chemicals in approved and clearly marked containers, and finally – the careful disposal of broken glassware and other sharp objects in designated containers, using safety equipment to remove them from the floor or work space.

Spilling liquids and dropping glass beakers is typically the result of not following procedures and rushing. Emphasize the importance of carefully moving through each step of the lab to avoid any hasty movements. Let students know about the potential dangers that can come from spilling chemicals and breaking glass in the lab, and teach clear clean-up policies in the event that a spill or break occurs.

To help prevent accidents, teach students to be careful when handling hot glassware (which looks the same as cold glassware), not to point open test tubes containing chemicals at themselves or others, always use a pipette device when adding approved chemicals, turn off all heating apparatuses when not in use, remove flammable solvents from the work area when working with a lit flame, and never remove chemicals from the lab.

Common Injuries from Spills and Breaks in the Lab:

  • Cuts on fingers and hands
  • Skin irritation and/or topical burns
  • Inhaling dangerous fumes
  • Eye injury

5. Slips and Falls

Avoiding the injuries that can be caused by slips and falls in the lab can be accomplished with careful safety planning and working within lab procedures. When students take part in creating the lab’s safety plan, they are more likely to understand and adhere to it.. All hands-on lab work should be completed under the careful supervision of the instructor, with students immediately reporting all safety incidents, including spills, accidents, or injuries.

When students understand the importance of the timely reporting and safe clean-up of spills in the lab, slips and falls can be avoided. Students should be instructed to store personal items away from their work areas during lab work and keep the floor clear of all items. When finished, students should clean their work area and the floor around it carefully to remove any waste and dispose of it properly.

If an accident occurs, under the supervision of the instructor and within the guidelines of the classes’ safety plan, students should wear approved PPE when cleaning up chemical spills. They should not touch spilled chemicals with their hands, instead using a spatula to remove the spill from the floor or work area. 

Common Injuries from Slips and Fall Accidents in the Lab:

  • Impact injuries
  • Sprained and/or broken bones
  • Pulled muscles and torn ligaments
  • Bruising and soft tissue damage 

6. Hand Tools

Similar to working with chemicals in the lab, students should also wear approved PPE when conducting dissections and other activities involving cutting tools and other lab equipment. This can include safety goggles or glasses, gloves, and aprons. Wearing a lab coat or apron can help ensure that chemicals and other materials are not accidentally transferred outside of the lab through contaminated clothing. 

Students should review safety procedures and the guidelines for responding to an accident before beginning each hands-on activity. When new tools and equipment are introduced, it is important to review each item carefully, making sure the students understand its approved use in the activity, how it should be cleaned and stored afterwards, and the potential injuries that could occur with unsafe use of the item. 

For example, when using sharp tools for dissection, students should receive instruction in how to safely handle blades. In addition, when disposing of sharp items, like broken glass, needles, or razor blades used for cutting lab materials, be sure that students know to carefully wrap these items before disposing of them in the appropriate waste container.

Common Injuries from Hand Tool Accidents in the Lab:

  • Cuts on fingers and hands
  • Puncture wounds
  • Fractures
  • Eye injury

7. Contamination

Wearing approved PPE, including chemical-resistant gloves and aprons in the lab, is the best way to reduce the risk of contamination. Removing all personal items from students’ work areas, including the floor around it, should also be required when working with chemicals. These instructions, when posted in the classroom as part of the lab’s safety plan, should become a consistent part of planning and conducting each student-led activity.

Using the right cleaning tools and methods when cleaning up after each experiment and removing spills, is also an important part of reducing the chance of contamination in the lab. Students should learn the correct method of using, disposing, cleaning and/or storing each item they use in a lab before they begin – including chemicals and cleaners. This also includes understanding the procedures for safe storage of chemicals and other equipment. 

"Wash your hands" may seem like basic advice, but it's important that all students in the lab follow careful hand-washing procedures. Before and after interacting with any foreign substances, students should thoroughly wash their hands, and also protect their clothing and skin with lab aprons, gloves, and/or glasses as needed. Leaving the lab with bacteria, tissue, or other potentially harmful substances on their skin or clothes can result in contamination of desks or lunch tables, causing illness and other complications.

Common Injuries from Contamination Accidents in the Lab:

  • Skin irritations and burns
  • Irritations and burns to the eye
  • Poisoning
  • Allergic reaction

Safety as a Hallmark of Success

Spending time on safety rules is a hallmark of a successful science classroom. By not skimping on your safety talk, you'll end up with more time to experiment and learn without the drama of a dangerous accident!

Disclaimer: This news piece is intended for reflective purposes only and is not intended to give guidance or recommendations for any specific situation. Always check your state and local laws for guidance on the safe storage, handling, and disposal of lab materials. In the case of exposure to hazards and injury you should immediately seek the support of qualified medical personnel. If you are experiencing an emergency you should dial 911 or contact emergency medical, police, or fire personnel immediately.

Photo Credit: Nathan Likert via Compfight cc