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Handling of Biological Materials on the Open Bench

Why You Should Care 

Many biological materials can be safely manipulated on the open bench; other biological materials should only be manipulated in a biological safety cabinet. Do you know where yours belong? Even if it is deemed safe to work at the bench, you still need to take some basic precautions to ensure that your techniques do not pose an exposure hazard to your colleagues or yourself, as well as to prevent contamination of your workspace. 

Standard Practices

  • Conduct a risk assessment – Evaluate your material, procedure and equipment hazards.
  • Are you ready? – If you don’t plan properly, open bench work could compromise your science, your health and the people around you, so before you start, make sure that you have reviewed your activities with your supervisor or PI. If you aren’t sure, play it safe and work in a biosafety cabinet or fume hood, practice with a less hazardous material before working with the real thing, or ask EHS for our help in reviewing your plans.
  • On the benchtop, personal protective equipment (PPE) is crucial – The only physical barrier between you and your work if something goes wrong on the open bench is the PPE you are wearing. Gloves and lab coats should always be worn, and based on what you are doing, you may need eye protection, face masks, or face shields to protect your mucous membranes from splatter or droplets. Remember that inappropriate use of PPE or selecting the wrong PPE can also be a problem.
  • Think about your neighbors – Make sure everyone knows when you are conducting work that could pose a risk to them and ask them to respect your space and mental concentration. If there is a risk of exposure to something, make sure they are aware of the hazards and understand the signs and symptoms of infection. If you are actively performing experiments that require PPE beyond a lab coat and gloves, consider whether you need to move your experiment to a more appropriate location in the lab or to a “hood”. Similarly, are your neighbors actively performing research experiments? If so, ask them about it to determine if there’s anything you should be aware of.
  • Define your work zone – Remind yourself and let others know where your activities are taking place and that those locations could be contaminated by using tape to demarcate areas, absorbent liner for the bench, signs, and other visual tools that let everyone know what’s going on and where.
  • Keep it clean and organized – Disinfect the bench and equipment surfaces regularly, don’t leave sharp objects out, change absorbent materials frequently, have all waste streams clearly identified and disposal bins readily available, and keep things in order. A messy bench can also 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.
  • Think about transport –when moving materials between locations, be sure to close up your containers, use trays, carts, and other items to help prevent and contain spills or breakages.
  • Think about cross-contamination – Even if your research doesn’t pose a hazard to you or your neighbors, think about whether you could contaminate your experiments or someone else’s if you choose to do work 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, and remember that street clothes do not count as PPE.
  • Don’t use a Bunsen Burner near alcohol – this is a fire waiting to happen. Keep the flame as far apart from Ethanol and other flammable materials as possible.
  • Don’t get complacent – Maintain awareness of the risks of your work to yourself and others, and remain diligent about maintaining open lines of communication with those around you. Act accordingly. If you’re 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