The biggest risks in South African laboratories

Improper storage and underestimating the risks posed by small quantities of hazardous chemicals are among the biggest fire and safety risks in South African laboratories. This is according to lab safety and storage expert Sascha Kunkel, vice president of Global Markets with German lab storage specialists asecos, who will present a series of lab safety workshops at the upcoming analytica Lab Africa laboratory technology trade show, taking place from 9 to11 July at Gallagher Convention Centre.

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‘Flammable materials are a particular risk in the lab environment, yet we find that many labs in South Africa are not aligned with global best practices in terms of storage and handling of hazardous and flammable chemicals,’ he says.  Kunkel says South African regulations on storage, handling and materials safety are rather vague, and often the users are not properly trained.

‘Flammables are potentially the most dangerous substances in the lab, and many accidents occur around these, yet many people don’t have a real sense of the risks,’ he says. ‘A key issue is underestimating the risks posed by small quantities of hazardous or flammable chemicals. They might store large quantities safely, but keep small quantities in the lab, in ordinary wooden or metal filing cabinets. This is extremely dangerous, as one small accident can quickly cause a chain reaction and within minutes, a blaze and possibly even an explosion.’

Group materials correctly

Another common safety mistake made in labs is to store chemicals alphabetically for easy location, he says. ‘It is important to group materials correctly by the characteristics of the materials, and not in alphabetical order, as materials grouped in this way could be incompatible.’ Awareness of – and alignment with – the Globally Harmonised System (GHS) for classification and labelling of materials and studying the safety data sheets that come with hazardous materials are important measures to reduce risks in the lab, he notes.

‘Proper storage is crucial for lab safety,’ Kunkel says. ‘If a fire breaks out close to an ordinary metal cabinet, the cabinet will blow up within minutes. Flammable and hazardous materials must be contained in appropriate storage cabinets – they need to be corrosion resistant or fire-rated, depending on their use. In the case of flammable materials storage, it is recommended that the cabinet offer 90 minutes’ fire resistance, which allows ample time for evacuation of the site and for fire officials to attend to the blaze safely.’

Robust risk assessment

However, there is no single protocol for optimal lab safety, he says. ‘There is no one size fits all approach – it depends on the application, lab type and chemicals in use. But it is important that people are made aware of the potential risks, take inventories, get rid of all hazardous materials that are no longer needed, group and store them correctly, and do robust risk assessments. These protocols should be repeated regularly – especially when processes change and new employees come aboard.’

asecos will present workshops on laboratory safety at analytica Lab Africa on July 9 to 11, giving in-depth insights into risks and live demonstrations of proper safety procedures in the lab. Kunkel reports that similar workshops have been staged across the country in recent years, and are particularly well received by delegates.

At the asecos Lab Safety Show at analytica Lab Africa, experts will outline the proper storage of hazardous materials in 21st century laboratories, new hazards such as the storage and handling of lithium ion batteries, protective and preventative measures, labelling hazardous materials and legal guidelines.

analytica Lab Africa, presented by Messe Munchen, will be held from July 9 to 11 at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand. This international trade fair for laboratory technology, analysis, biotechnology and diagnostics will showcase the latest solutions and services for the sector, and will include practical training and the Lab Safety Show. Analytica Lab Africa will be co-located with IFAT Africa 2019 – Africa’s leading trade fair for water, sewage, refuse and recycling – and food & drink technology Africa (fdt Africa), bringing together around 6 000 visitors access to the latest technologies across the entire value chain, including solutions to key industry concerns such as quality assurance, packaging, environmental issues and waste management.

analytica Lab Africa is a part of the worldwide analytica network, featuring international innovations and trends precisely tailored to the local market.  analytica Lab Africa builds on the highly successful local Lab Africa exhibition – South Africa’s only laboratory technology trade fair.