Lab Safety Chemical Exposures Incidents

Hydrofluoric Acid

Hydrofluoric Acid Burn from Trifluoracetic Acid

A laboratory worker picked up a container of trifluoroacetic acid with her ungloved hand to move it. She did not notice that there was a small amount of residue on the glass. Several hours later, she experienced pain in the palm of her hand and the inside aspect of her thumb. The result was a serious burn that required skin grafting. She was not aware that this type of burn could result from handling trifluoracetic acid.
Trifluoracetic acid can form hydrofluoric acid upon contact with moisture. Hydrofluoric acid can cause deep burns that may not be painful for hours.
  • Know the hazards of the chemicals involved before handling them.
  • Always assume containers are contaminated and wear appropriate gloves when handling chemical containers.
  • Keep a hydrofluoric acid burn kit in the laboratory when working with hydrofluoric acid or trifluoracetic acid.
Source: Fatal Unintentional Occupational Poisonings by Hydrofluroic Acid in the US, American Journal of Industrial Medicine 40: 215-220 (2001)
Monash University, Hazard Alert:  Recent Hydrofluoric Acid Fatality in Perth

Wrong Gloves Lead to an Acid Burn

A Post-Doctorate Fellow was working with concentrated Sulfuric Acid. She splashed some of the acid onto her latex gloves and it quickly burned a hole through the gloves and caused a small second-degree burn. She removed her gloves and ran her hand under water for fifteen minutes.
Clearly the wrong gloves were used in this case. A better choice of gloves would be those made out of Polyethylene or Butyl Rubber. 
When setting up an experiment or handling concentrated chemicals, thoroughly investigate the properties of the materials involved. This is essential to determining the appropriate personal protective equipment. There has not been a glove made that will protect you against all chemicals. In fact, ALL glove materials will be degraded by ALL chemicals... it is just a question of time.  If you are unsure, ask the Safety Office, your supervisor or consult a glove chart.
If using disposable gloves and you have splashed something on to them, replace them immediately. This will minimize exposures through pinholes or degradation. If you are using non-disposable gloves, clean and rinse them thoroughly as appropriate or before switching to another pair.

Source: Case Reports From TheLiterature, IPCS Inchem,  Hydrogen Fluoride Page (Scroll down to Section 11.1)

Phenol/chloroform Burn While Carrying Chemicals Incorrectly   

A laboratory worker received burns to the face and chest while carrying chemicals from one area of the laboratory to another. The worker placed unsealed centrifuge tubes filled with phenol-chloroform into a Styrofoam centrifuge tube shipping container. The Styrofoam broke and the phenol-chloroform splashed onto the worker’s face and dripped down the chest. The worker immediately flushed the area with a drench hose, but still suffered from second-degree burns to the face, chest and abdomen. Fortunately, the worker was wearing chemical splash goggles and did not receive burns to the eyes.
  • Appropriate eye and face protection helped to minimize the chemical burn. 
  • Wear a closed lab coat when working with hazardous materials.  
  • Use a plastic centrifuge rack instead of a Styrofoam packing container, particularly when transporting chemicals.

Failure to Remove Contaminated Clothing Exacerbates Chemical Burns

There have been several incidents, usually involving phenol, where laboratory workers spilled a chemical on his or her pants. In all cases, the worker bypassed the safety shower and entered a restroom to remove the pants and rinse the leg. In each case, the worker put the contaminated pants back on and either went home to rinse further or went to  the University Health Center. All resulted in second degree burns that could have been minimized by taking off the contaminated clothing and rinsing immediately using a safety shower or drench hose.

  • Remove contaminated clothing while rinsing.
  • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including a closed lab coat when working with hazardous materials.
  • Do not put contaminated clothing back on.
  • Wash clothing separately or discard. Many chemicals can permeate leather. Discard any contaminated leather items.

Mixing Incompatible Wastes

A laboratory worker was cleaning out chemicals from an old refrigerator. Wearing gloves, chemical splash goggles and a lab coat (over shorts), the worker was segregating the chemicals into several different waste containers. He found a small bottle of iodine monochloride, and not knowing the physical properties of the chemical, began to pour it into a jar with other liquid wastes. The waste container suddenly began fuming vigorously, startling the worker and causing the worker to drop the bottle of iodine monochloride. Several drops of the chemical splashed onto the worker's leg, causing a second degree burn.
The iodine monochloride reacted with a chemical in the waste container. The worker was fortunate that the reaction did not produce significant amounts of hazardous vapors. Had the worker been wearing long pants, the burn might have been avoided.
  • Never mix chemicals unless you are certain of the consequences and are prepared to control the hazard.
  • Do not mix incompatible waste chemicals together.
  • Know the hazards of each chemical before working with it.
  • Wear pants and a closed lab coat when working with hazardous materials

Eye Exposures

Chemical Splash to the Eyes In Spite of Goggles

An undergraduate student was working on an experiment in a hood.   When she removed the reflux condenser, the solution bumped...splashing her face and chest. In spite of the fact that the student was wearing goggles, the solution managed to go past the seal and into her eyes. The Teaching Assistant got her to a safety shower and began flushing when he evacuated the lab and got assistance from another instructor (and had someone call 911). The Teaching Assistant assisted in removing the contaminated clothing. The student was taken to the Emergency room and later was evaluated by her own physician and optometrist to show no permanent damage.
What can be done to prevent this from occurring again?
Fume hood sashes need to be as far down as possible while the student is working. The sashes should be in the "up" position only when setting up an experiment or when tearing it down. The sash acts as a primary barrier against splashes and explosions. Teaching Assistants and Lab Supervisors should  remind their students and other lab personnel  to pull the sash down when working.
Sash breaks that prevent the sash from being  accidentally raised more than the desired height are recommended.

Researcher Blinded in One Eye from Cryotube Explosion

Key Instruction Points:
  • Consider shielding for operations involving vacuum or pressurization.
  • Be aware of the potential for pressurization when working with cryogenic liquids.
  • Use appropriate personal protective equipment.

A University of X investigator was blinded in one eye when a cryotube exploded while being thawed.  The probable cause was the rapid expansion of liquid nitrogen that had entered the tube through a small crack during storage.   Suitable personal protective equipment for thawing cryotubes and handling cryogenic liquids consists of a face shield, heavy gloves, a buttoned lab coat and pants or a long skirt.  Cryotubes should be kept in a heavy, walled container or behind a safety shield while warming.


Improper Use of Eyewash Results In Trip To Emergency Room

While using a fluorescent stain in the cytogenetics lab, I felt something splash up into my eye. I was not wearing safety goggles or glasses. I went to the nearest sink that had an eyewash (mounted into the counter with a handle and hose). I flushed-out my eye for a minute to remove whatever had splashed into it. 
My eyes remained irritated so I flushed them out again at the eyewash station. Soon afterwards, my eyes began to swell shut. I walked over to the emergency room to be seen by the doctors. They were unable to pinpoint the cause, but thought I was having an allergic reaction to some irritant exposure to my eyes. I was given antihistamines and was OK after a few hours.
A few days later, I noticed someone using the same eyewash to clean glassware and stainless steel trays. The eyewash was draped over into the sink and sitting in a cleaning solution. So the water from the eyewash that I was using to flush out my eyes was most likely contaminated with chemicals. This practice was discontinued immediately and the eyewash was cleaned and put onto a routine maintenance schedule that included regular flushes.

Mercury Compounds

Dimethylmercury Skin Exposure Fatality, a collection of articles posted by Colgate University


Solvent  Exposures

Over-pressurization of Gel Column Causes Chemical Splash  to Eyes and Skin

A laboratory worker was pouring chloroform though a gel column inside a fume hood. Due to incorrect equipment configuration, pressure built up in the column and caused the glassware at the top of the column to break, spraying chloroform out of the hood,
onto the worker’s face, eyes and clothing.
The laboratory worker was wearing safety glasses, rather than chemical splash goggles. The chloroform seeped through the opening at the top of the glasses and burned both eyes. The lens of the safety glasses were partially dissolved by the chloroform. The worker did use a safety shower immediately, but was too embarrassed to remove his sweater in the presence of other laboratory workers. As a result, he suffered from second degree burns on both arms where the chloroform soaked through the sweater.
The set-up of the apparatus was changed to allow the hood of the sash to be lowered when the chloroform is being poured, providing an additional shield between the worker and the chemical and lowering the potential spray below eye level.
  • Keep hazardous materials that have the potential for splash below eye level.
  • Use care when working with pressure or vacuum to avoid pressurizing containers.
  • Wear a closed lab coat, chemical splash goggles and, if necessary, a face shield when there is a possibility of a significant chemical splash.
  • Remove contaminated clothing while rinsing.
  • Keep the hood sash lowered and/or use shielding when working with pressurized containers

NOx Exposures

Exposure to NOx

Key learning:
This was a routine lab procedure of catalyst calcining but the first time in new location. There were no written procedures for this process and was passed by word of mouth.
The lab set up was not secured and checked prior to start up.
Researcher that detected odor was taken for medical evaluation and admitted to hospital overnight for observation.
An employee was performing the first catalyst calcining since the lab they worked in had been moved to a new location.  The particular reaction carried out during the incident was a “nickel nitrate decomposition.”  The lab is located on the “High Bay Platform” of room G16.  This is an interior lab not exposed to the outside elements.  The off-gas of the calcining process was bubbled into a beaker of water set on the bench top beside the reaction taking place.  This bubbling process was used to capture the NOx that is released from the nickel nitrate decomposition so that it was not released to the immediate breathing zone of the employee.  Typical protocol, provided to the employee via “word of mouth” prior to the experiment, calls for the beaker to be placed in a fume hood while the catalyst calcining takes place. However, on the day of the incident the beaker was on the lab bench during the experiment.  While calcining the catalyst, the employee noticed a distinct metallic smell and realized he was being exposed to the NOx generated from the experiment.  At this time he noticed the beaker used to scrub the off gas had been turned over on the lab bench, thus creating a direct release of NOx to the immediate environment.  The employee then verbally notified the other two employees working in the immediate area and they all evacuated simultaneously. 
The employee immediately notified his supervisor of the exposure.  The CAER safety representative was notified the next day.  A call was then placed to the university health services and the employee was admitted for initial treatment and overnight observation.
  • No written procedures.
  • Lack of training and understanding of basic  safety precautions for the procedure.
  • Final check of set prior to initiating reaction.
Corrective Action:
  • Develop written procedures for process
  • Review requirements for exhausting all lab generated contaminated
Date of Incident - January 11, 2011 at 2:00 p.m.