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Prepare for Emergencies from Uncontrolled Hazards

You need knowledge and awareness to prepare for emergencies, such as accidents, spills, and fires in your particular laboratory environment.  

Important tips:

  • Know and practice the procedures for handling common emergencies such as spills, cuts, burns, exposures, and fires.
  • Discuss emergency procedures with students, both in a general way and with regard to each experiment.
  • Ensure that all safety equipment, such as eyewash, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and safety shower, is present and in working order.

Emergency Preparation

Exits and Emergency Drills

  • Exits should be clearly marked, and drills should be conducted to practice emergency response.
  • At the beginning of each semester, students should learn how to use all safety equipment. The teacher should demonstrate appropriate use of the eyewash station and safety shower, and explain how spills and broken glass are handled.

Recommended Safety Equipment

  • Plumbed-in eyewash station:
    Be advised of the risk of possible bacterial contamination with portable eyewash stations where the bottles may have been unused for long periods of time. Note also that these bottles do not supply a sufficient amount of water to flush the eyes for the recommended 15 minutes.
  • Safety shower:
    Operation must be verified on a regular basis. This includes ensuring the proper flow of clean water.
  • Chemical splash goggles stored in a UV-sanitizing goggle cabinet:
    Some schools may require students to purchase goggles rather than sharing them.
  • Chemical and flame-resistant laboratory aprons and coats:
    There should be written procedures for the handling, storage, cleaning, and disposal of aprons and coats.
  • Non-latex gloves
  • Fire extinguisher:
    Review the information provided on pages 28 and 29 concerning different types of extinguishers for various classes of fire. Teachers who are authorized to use a fire extinguisher must be trained on its proper use.
  • First aid kit:
    As a general rule, teachers should not provide first aid to students. Call on the school nurse or emergency medical personnel if any student is in need of medical assistance. Follow your school’s protocol about requesting the school nurse to come to the site of the accident. Be sure to also notify the student’s parents or guardians about the incident.
  • Broken glass disposal container
  • Fire blankets:
    These are no longer recommended for the high school laboratory. Practice “Stop, Drop, and Roll” instead.

Emergency Response

In a school setting, maintenance or custodial staff will be handling much of the laboratory waste and spills. It is vital that anyone who has access to the laboratory is aware of spills, broken glassware, or any other relevant chemical information in the workplace.

Special Considerations in the Laboratory

Broken Glassware

  • Handle broken glassware with gloves, and do not allow students to clean it up
    A dustpan and brush, reserved for that purpose, may be useful for cleaning up broken glassware. If a dangerous chemical is on the glassware, treat the glassware as contaminated and dispose of it accordingly
  • Broken, non-contaminated glassware must be disposed of in appropriate containers (i.e., broken glass disposal boxes)
    If broken glass disposal boxes are used, the entire box must be disposed of, not just the inner plastic bag of broken glass
    Do not attempt to reuse the boxes!



(See Mercury Spills and Volatile Liquid Spills for instructions on those situations.)

Prevent the spread of dust and vapors by closing the laboratory door and increasing ventilation.

  1. Control the spread of liquid and absorb it with vermiculite, special absorbent material (e.g., Oil-Dri), cat litter, or spill pillows.

Note: Hydrofluoric acid and concentrated sulfuric acid require special materials for absorption.
Hydrofluoric acid and perchloric acid should never be present in a high school laboratory.

  1. Neutralize acids and bases:
    - Neutralize acids with sodium carbonate (soda ash) or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).
    - Bases can be neutralized with citric acid or ascorbic acid.
    - Use pH paper to determine when acid or base spills have been neutralized.
  2. Collect and contain residues and place them in a plastic bag or bucket.
  3. Dispose of the waste according to the SDS and local ordinances.
  4. Decontaminate the area and the affected equipment using standard cleaning supplies (for most spills) or according to the SDS.

Mercury Spills

The EPA recommends the following steps for cleaning up small, droplet-sized mercury spills, such as those resulting from a broken thermometer. Please note, however, that most states have banned the use or presence of mercury thermometers in schools because of the hazard of spilled mercury in case of breakage. Contact your state board of education for specific information related to the use of mercury in your school.

Note: Mercury cleanup kits are available in chemical supply catalogs, and it is recommended that any school using equipment containing mercury obtain a spill kit.

  1. Evacuate students from the immediate area, and be certain that no fabric or upholstery has come into contact with the mercury
  2. Put on nitrile gloves
  3. Inspect the entire area of the spill for mercury beads, and gather them into one area with a squeegee or piece of cardboard
  4. Carefully pick up broken glass from the thermometer and place it in a paper towel
    - Fold the paper towel
    - Seal it in a ziplock bag
    - Secure and label the bag
  5. Use the mercury cleanup kit to collect the mercury beads
    - Deposit the cleanup material in the container supplied with the kit
  6. After the larger mercury beads have been removed using this method, adhesive tape, such as duct tape, may be used to perform the final cleanup
    - Place all mercury-containing cleanup materials in a ziplock bag
    - Secure and label the bag.

Note: Do not use a vacuum cleaner to pick up spilled mercury, as this can vaporize and spread the mercury.

  1. Contact appropriate officials for proper disposal
  2. Keep the immediate area well-ventilated to the outside for at least 24 hours
  3. Have broken glass disposal boxes available
    - Be certain that your school and local maintenance employees are aware of the designation

Volatile Liquid Spills

  1. Be especially careful to extinguish any sources of ignition and seal waste in a container.
  2. Ventilate the area before proceeding with cleanup.
  3. Volatile toxic compounds:
    - Absorb the spill
    - Seal it in a bag or bucket
    - Submit it for hazardous-material disposal
    - Avoid direct-contact hazards.
  4. Select PPE with care, ensuring that the construction material is appropriate for the chemicals being handled
    - Consider wearing two pairs of gloves for extra protection.

A Closer Look

What College Students Should Know

College students should be prepared for emergencies by practicing how to respond to various common emergencies that could occur in laboratories, such as fires, explosions, chemical exposures, injuries, and chemical spills. Students should be able to explain the selection and use of emergency equipment such as fire extinguishers, eyewash stations, safety showers, spill kits, first aid kits, fire alarms, and fire blankets.

Students should recognize the importance of reporting laboratory incidents, as well as “near misses”, and the lessons that can be learned from these incidents. This information should be shared with others in their laboratory, department, and elsewhere.

Students should know that the focus of incident investigation and reporting is to prevent future incidents.

1 Source: American Chemical Society. Guide for Chemical Spill Response Planning in Laboratories, 1995 (accessed June 19, 2015).

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