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Handling of Biological Materials on the Open Bench

Many biological materials can be safely manipulated on the open bench while other biological materials should only be manipulated in a biological safety cabinet.

It is important to understand the materials being handled and where they can be safely handled. Even if a biological material is deemed safe to work at the bench, basic precautions still need to be taken to ensure that your techniques do not pose an exposure hazard to your colleagues or yourself, as well as to prevent contamination of the workspace. 

Standard Practices

  • Conduct a Risk Assessment – Evaluate the biological material, procedures, and equipment hazards. If assistance is needed when performing a risk assessment contact askEHS.
  • Be Prepared – Before starting work on the open bench, make sure to review procedures with a supervisor or PI. Working on open bench could potentially compromise a sample and increase risk of exposure to individuals in the laboratory space. If unsure whether the procedure can be performed on benchtop, work in a biosafety cabinet or fume hood.  In addition, it is useful to practice with a less hazardous material before working with the real thing or ask EHS assistance in reviewing plans.
  • Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – PPE is the last line of defense and protects the researcher in case an incident occurs on the open bench. Gloves and lab coats should always be worn. Eye protection is required if working with a hazard or performing procedures that could result in a splash or spill. There may be times when face masks or face shields are worn to protect mucous membranes from splatter or droplets. Remember that inappropriate use of PPE or selecting the wrong PPE can also be a problem.
  • Keep Open Communication – It is important that everyone in a laboratory is aware when work is being conducted that could pose a risk. If there is an increased risk for exposure, be sure everyone is aware of the hazards and understands the signs and symptoms of infection. If experiments are consistently being performed that require PPE beyond a lab coat and gloves, consider moving the experiment to a more appropriate location in the lab or to a BSC or fume hood. Similarly, are other laboratory members actively performing research experiments on benchtop? If so, it is important to communicate to better understand the other hazards in the laboratory space.
  • Define a Work Zone – Inform others of where activities are taking place by using tape to define areas, absorbent liner for the bench, signs, and other visual tools that inform others of experimental details and location.
  • Keep Space Clean and Organized – A messy bench can lead to scientific mistakes, since it can be more difficult to identify samples or know what is clean or dirty, thus leading to potential contamination issues.
    • Disinfect the bench and equipment surfaces regularly
    • Do not leave sharp objects out
    • Change absorbent materials frequently
    • Clearly define all waste streams and have disposal bins readily available
    • Keep things in order
  • Transportation of Materials –When moving materials between locations, be sure to close up containers, use trays, carts, and other items to help prevent and contain spills or breakages.
  • Think about Cross-contamination – Even if the research does not pose a hazard to anyone in the laboratory space, think about whether contamination of the experiment or someone else’s could occur. There is an increased risk for sample contamination when working on the open bench rather than in a biosafety cabinet.

Things to Avoid 

  • Don’t skip your PPE – just because your work may be safe to perform on the open bench, does not mean it is ok to perform that work without PPE.
  • Don’t use a Bunsen Burner near alcohol – Keep the flame as far apart from Ethanol and other flammable materials as possible.
  • Don’t get complacent – Maintain awareness of the experimental risks and remain diligent about maintaining open lines of communication with those around you. Act accordingly. If you are feeling tired or hungry or stressed, consider rescheduling the work so that you are less likely to make mistakes.

 Where to get training and more information