Texas Tech University

Skin contacts with spilled chemicals lead to wide changes in teaching laboratories


What happened?

Two students in upper division laboratory courses experienced skin contact with hazardous chemicals.

In one incident, a student spilled a mixture of benzaldehyde, acetone and ethanolic sodium hydroxide on her/his shirt. The solution soaked through to the skin. The teaching assistant immediately helped the student to rinse and apply ice to the area. This initial treatment did not reduce a burning sensation, and the teaching assistant led the student to the stockroom. The stockroom manager moved the student to a private area where the student removed the shirt, rinsed thoroughly and donned a lab coat. The student returned to class and completed the day's experiments. When class ended, the laboratory coordinator escorted the student to the main office, where s/he completed an incident report form.

In a second incident, a student pipetting sulfuric acid flipped the pipette tip so that droplets of concentrated sulfuric acid splashed on a second student's sleeve, neck and cheek. The teaching assistant helped the student rinse the areas. At the end of the class period, the student departed and indicated s/he felt fine. However, the student later developed burning symptoms and sought medical attention. Laboratory instructional personnel did not complete an incident report.

What was the cause?

Both skin contacts resulted from accidental spills, but the affected students were not wearing lab coats or lab aprons, which would have prevented the chemicals from contacting skin.

Why did these chemical contacts occur? Likely reasons:

  • The students were not wearing lab coats or lab aprons.
  • The students did not have experience or training to handle hazardous or concentrated chemicals.
  • Students clustered together when getting chemicals needed for the day's experiments.

What corrective actions were taken?

The department changed practices in all laboratory courses so that concentrated acids and bases (and other hazardous reagents) are handled by the laboratory TAs and not directly by students. The department bought lab coats or lab aprons for all students enrolled in laboratory courses and enforced the requirement that students wear eye protection and a lab coat or lab apron at all times in laboratory courses. Laundry and replacement procedures were identified. The department also revamped its incident reporting procedures and procedures for transport for medical treatment, if needed. While doing so, they consulted with other departments at TTU, EH&S, and university counsel. Instructional placards giving information to use “In the event of an accident or a spill in a teaching laboratory” were posted prominently in every teaching laboratory in the department.

In subsequent semesters, the department developed and implemented a TA training course that emphasizes safety and includes role-playing exercises in which TAs learn effective ways to communicate and enforce safe working procedures with their students. The department also beefed up safety discussions in courses, developed a set of safety procedures that are applied uniformly across all instructional laboratories in the department, and identified a basic set of laboratory safety rules that students are held responsible to through inclusion in instructional laboratory syllabi.

How can we prevent incidents like this?

  • Emphasize safety procedures, including PPE, as an integral part of all laboratory courses.
  • Provide all TAs, instructors and laboratory staff with tools and skills to teach and enforce safe practices.
  • Require everyone in the laboratory to use appropriate PPE. Keep at this, using escalating penalties if necessary. Be prepared to kick out anyone who will not use PPE.
  • Arrange the laboratory work so that only trained personnel handle hazardous reagents.
  • Model and require use of PPE.


  1. Hill RH, Finster DC. Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students, John Wiley & Sons, 2010
  2. Prudent Practices in the Laboratory, Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards, National Research Council, 2011 (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12654).