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Hazard Assessments

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Hazards are commonly associated with research activities. Chemicals may be toxic, reactive, flammable, or corrosive. Lasers can cause tissue damage and start fires. Electrical systems can pose shock or electrocution hazards, and mechanical systems can present physical hazards that could result in burns, lost limbs or even death. The purpose of the Hazard Assessment Program is to provide the university community guidance on how to manage the risk of serious injury/illness, property and environmental damage associated with hazardous processes and work activities at Virginia. Such reviews are required by the University Health and Safety Policy

Hazard assessments are simply a process of identifying hazards, evaluating the risks presented by those hazards, and managing the risks of the hazards of the experiment to be performed by incorporating appropriate hazard controls into the experimental design process. There are many types of hazard assessment tools, from the very basic qualitative to more complex quantitative reviews.

Environmental Health and Safety has compiled a series of resources to assist you with performing hazard assessments, and both in-person and online training is available.

The Health and Safety Policy requires that directors and department heads:

  • Ensure that instructional activities within their units are evaluated for potential safety and health exposure risks and all reasonable steps have been taken to reduce or mitigate such exposures as outlined in Guidelines on Safety in Research and Educational Activities. The review should include consideration of the conduct of the class, including the level of supervision needed to assure adequate oversight of student activities and allied instructional activities. Attention should be given also to non-traditional activities such as mini-courses, non-credit or optional activities associated with a course.
  • Require that all proposed and current research activities are reviewed to assure hazard exposures have been identified and all reasonable steps have been taken to reduce or mitigate such exposures as outlined in Guidelines on Safety in Research and Educational Activities.

It is the responsibility of the principal investigator, supervisor, or lab manager to assure these reviews are performed when required. The task of performing the hazard assessment can be delegated, but it must be reviewed and approved by the responsible authority for the teaching or research activity. The American Chemical Society has created a short video that emphasizes why risk assessments are so critically important.

The following section provides guidance on how to perform four different types of qualitative hazard assessments, but there are many other types of assessment tools, including quantitative methods. You are not restricted to using the ones presented in this section. For more information, see Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories. Examples of the various types of hazards include but are not limited to those outlined here

Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects employees from the risks of injury by creating a barrier against workplace hazards. PPE must be used when the eyes, face, hands, extremities, or other parts of the body are exposed to workplace hazards that cannot be controlled by other means. A PPE hazard assessment must be performed, for example, when other hazard controls are not feasible or do not completely control the hazard, or when safe work practices do not provide sufficient protection. If all reasonable hazard controls have been employed, the only hazards presented by the research are those which can be reasonably controlled by the use of PPE, and there is no risk of serious injury or property damage, a personal protective equipment (PPE) hazard assessment may be all that is required. For guidance on performing a PPE hazard assessment, see PPE Program Online. In laboratories, the PPE Hazard Assessment must be maintained with laboratory-specific documentation.

For a general description of the various types of hazard controls, see Hazard Controls or download the hazard controls summary Note that the use of some PPE, such as voltage-rated gloves, arc-rated clothing, personal fall arrest systems (i.e. harnesses), and respirators require specific training on the proper use, inspection, and limitations of the PPE. Training is available through Environmental Health & Safety. In addition, persons using respirators must be medically cleared through Environmental Health & Safety before using the respirator.

The use of particularly hazardous materials or processes (heating, reactions, etc.), performing work with materials exhibiting exothermic reactions, temperature extremes, high pressures or vacuums, or other potentially hazardous conditions will require a more robust hazard assessment. Unless all hazard exposures are controlled, an evaluation of the need for PPE will also need to be performed.

Control banding is a useful tool for quickly assessing the risks presented by chemicals and determining the appropriate control strategies where typical processes and reactions involving chemicals are well established. Control banding involves dividing hazardous materials and processes into “bands” based on chemical properties (fire, reactivity, and toxicity), processes, or other groups, and then identifying the associated hazards and hazard controls. One of the simplest forms of control banding focuses on the characteristics of an individual chemical.

Control banding is not recommended for high hazard activities, research involving multiple apparatus, or research where the failure of hazard controls could result in serious injury or health effects, property damage, or environmental degradation.

Chemical reactivity hazards are posed by self-reacting materials such as organic peroxides, pyrophoric material, and polymerizing monomers as well as uncontrolled chemical interactions (e.g. incompatibilities) even between substances that may not be generally considered reactive. Self-reacting materials can pose a hazard by decomposing, polymerizing, or rearranging in an uncontrolled manner, even without being combined with other materials. Chemical interactions have the potential for loss or injury consequences. Situations such as a temporary loss of ignition, cooling systems, or electricity can result in uncontrolled reactions. Make sure that you're fully aware of the nature of the chemicals used, the reaction between chemicals, and factors (e.g. changing concentration, temperature, etc.) that may result in uncontrolled reactions. Proper control methods must be in place for chemical reactivity hazards. See the Chemical Reactivity Hazard links below for helpful information.

For detailed guidance on research safety appropriate for first and second year students, see Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories. EHS strongly advocates that this reference be incorporated into curricula whenever possible and where appropriate.

Chemical reactions performed within pressure vessels can be particularly hazardous, and certain classes of chemicals should never be used in pressure vessels. 

Pressurized systems at Virginia Tech include everything from small, unheated, low-pressure laboratory setups to large, extremely high-pressure heated metal vessels weighing several tons. The stored energy associated with these systems has the potential to cause injuries ranging from eye injuries to multiple fatalities. A pressure vessel as small as a few liters volume at 200 psi contains enough stored energy to cause fatal injuries as a result of a catastrophic failure.

Pressurized metal vessels and components can fail as a result of fatigue cracking due to cyclic loading, overheating, and stress-enhanced corrosion cracking. Pressurized glass components can fail as a result of corrosion, manufacturing and assembly stresses, and scratches on the glass surface due to improper handling. In both types of materials, failure can occur after a period of use at the originally designed pressure and temperature and without warning.

Failure can also occur due to overpressurization due to direct pressurization or through chemical reactions that liberate heat or volumes of gas or both. In some cases chemical reactions can result in such a sudden increase in volume that the pressure cannot be relieved, resulting in an explosion or even a detonation.

It is absolutely critical, therefore, that pressurized systems be designed by a person knowledgeable in the properties of materials under room and elevated temperature, stress, and fatigue conditions, and who is experienced in pressurized system design. Except for small low-pressure laboratory setups and compressed gas distribution systems, this means it is best to purchase the system rather than design it in-house. In all cases, it is best to work closely with the manufacturer of the components and materials to ensure that they are suited to the intended conditions of use.

If you are constructing a pressure vessel that is subject to the Virginia Boiler and Pressure Vessel regulations, it must be designed by a qualified, licensed professional in accordance with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Design Standards for Pressure Vessels.

The following guidelines must be followed in the design, construction, and use of pressurized systems.

JHA’s are a systematic, qualitative approach for identifying potential chemical and physical hazards so that corrective and preventative actions or controls can be implemented to reduce the hazard exposure. This approach breaks down tasks into steps or phases where each one is assessed for potential or existing hazards where controls or PPE must be implemented. The advantages of a JHA are that the development of instructions for controlling laboratory operations with known hazards makes training of new personnel more consistent and effective, and the steps of a completed JHA readily translate into an experimental procedure.

A JHA consists of the following five basic steps:

  • Begin the JHA by breaking the job down into the steps or tasks performed while doing the job; 
  • Analyze the hazards of each step or task;
  • Determine the controls necessary to safely perform the work/tasks;
  • Perform the work utilizing the prescribed controls; and
  • Provide feedback and continuous improvement to enhance safety by periodically reviewing the JHA with all affected persons.

Download a blank Job Hazard Analysis template.

What-if analysis can be used for both simple research applications and more complex processes. It focuses on what can go wrong, then determines the likelihood and consequences of each scenario. The answers to these ‘what-if’ questions assist in determining a course of action for those risks deemed to be unacceptable. The following are examples of ‘what if’ categories of questions:

  • Human-factors: Related to operator error or actions by a person;
  • Utility-factors: Related to power, gas, compressed air and similar systems;
  • Equipment-factors: Related to apparatuses and equipment used; and/or
  • Material-factors: Related to the inherent hazards associated with the material being used (e.g., flammable, corrosive, toxic, explosive, etc.).

Download an example "What-If" review of a chemical process.

If the hazard controls do not reduce the potential risk to personnel health and safety to a tolerable level (e.g., there is still a risk of serious injuries or risk of death), you must consult with Environmental Health & Safety before beginning the work. Environmental Health & Safety will consult with your departmental leadership, Risk Management, and legal counsel to determine if the project should proceed. You should also consult with Environmental Health & Safety if the research equipment, processes, or projects have the following hazards:

  • Detonation or deflagration hazards;
  • Experiments or apparatus where lab personnel will be working on or near exposed energized electrical conductors (> 50 VAC or 100 VDC);
  • Rotating shafts, cogs, gears or pulleys which cannot be fully guarded;
  • Robotic systems where uncontrolled movement could imperil people in proximity;
  • Highly pressurized systems, equipment or vessels;
  • Use of pyrophoric or highly toxic gases; and/or
  • Large scale use of hazardous materials (e.g., pilot plant type operation) or lab use of hazardous chemicals in greater than one-gallon containers.

Contact Information

Zack Adams, Assistant Director, Occupational Safety and Health Programs

Phone: 540-231-5985