Laboratory safety management roles and responsibilities

Keeping laboratory workers safe is a top priority and challenge for laboratory management. Implementation of a laboratory safety program, efficient laboratory design, and effective security measures are some considerations for laboratory worker safety. The laboratory director, safety officer, hazardous chemical waste disposal coordinator, and radiation safety officer, as well as laboratory employees themselves, all play roles in ensuring safety, with the laboratory director bearing the ultimate responsibility.

This article presents a brief overview of the components of a laboratory safety program, important laboratory security concerns, as well as descriptions of the various roles and responsibilities of laboratory employees responsible for the safe operation of the laboratory.

Throughout this article, the phrase “the laboratory needs to” explains an action directly related to fulfilling requirements of international, national, and accreditation organizations. The phrase “the laboratory should” describes a recommendation provided in laboratory literature, a statement of good laboratory practice, or a suggestion for how to meet a requirement.

A comprehensive safety program encompasses all aspects of daily laboratory operations, including chemical hygiene, blood-borne pathogens, respiratory protection, radiation safety, fire prevention, emergency management, occupational health, safety education, and recordkeeping. 1

A general safety program includes considerations for the following:

  • Engineering controls
  • Personal protective equipment
  • Work practice controls
  • Emergency aids
  • Personnel responsibility
  • Waste disposal
  • Ergonomics

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified the following broad types of laboratory hazards:1

  • Allergic sensitization
  • Carcinogens
  • Equipment
  • General chemical hazards
  • Infection
  • Mutagens and teratogens
  • Physical stress

Lab-acquired infections

The laboratory-associated hazards of working with microorganisms have been well documented.2 Accidental or unrecognized exposure to specimens or cultures of highly transmissible microorganisms — such as Brucella species, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Neisseria meningitidis, Salmonella, Shigella, and Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli — has resulted in either life-threatening infection or death of clinical laboratory workers. For some of these organisms, laboratory workers are at greater risk of acquiring such infections than the general population.3

Laboratory-acquired infections may occur through inhalation; ingestion; direct contact of the eye, nose, mouth, or skin; or parenteral inoculation. Laboratory workers, who are routinely exposed to potentially infectious materials, are a high-risk group for occupationally related infections. Implementing practices that decrease the worker’s exposure to potentially infectious materials can minimize the risk of infection.4

Laboratories should develop guidelines that address security issues. Only authorized personnel should have access to the laboratory. For laboratories using biological agents or toxins capable of causing serious or fatal illness, additional security measures may be required, such as locking all storage cabinets, refrigerators, incubators, and doors to sensitive areas.5-7 The threat of theft and tampering of biological agents, specimens, drugs, chemicals, and confidential information should be assessed. The biological, chemical, and radiation levels of the laboratory should be considered when establishing a security policy. The current version of the BMBL5 outlines additional security recommendations for laboratories.

Laboratory director responsibilities

The laboratory director is responsible for laboratory safety. This includes providing a safety manual for laboratory employees that details all aspects of the laboratory safety program (e.g., chemical hygiene plan, blood-borne pathogens plan, respiratory protection plan, safety committee, and safety training).8 The safety manual should be readily available in work areas and specific to the laboratory’s needs. A safety officer may provide guidance to the laboratory director, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the laboratory director.1

The laboratory director is responsible for ensuring the following items and tasks:1

  • Adequate policies, procedures, and practices are in place to ensure the safety of laboratory employees, patients, and visitors
  • All policies and procedures are reviewed and approved before use
  • Annual training is provided to employees and includes documented evidence that employees have understood the training
  • Regular evacuation drills are performed
  • Appropriate engineering and work practice controls are in place in the laboratory to minimize the hazards inherent in the laboratory
  • All necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided to laboratory staff
  • All laboratory employees are provided with the necessary vaccinations and health monitoring
  • The employees are informed of significant risks associated with tasks being performed
  • Immediate medical attention can be arranged, on any shift, for incidents involving exposure to blood-borne pathogens or a chemical or biological agent

Laboratory safety officer

The lab manager should appoint a laboratory safety officer who has experience and credentials in the field of laboratory safety. For small laboratories, one individual in the facility should take appropriate courses to become knowledgeable in all laboratory safety requirements. The safety officer’s main function is to provide guidance to management officials and supervisors who are responsible for providing a safe workplace for all employees. The safety officer is expected to make recommendations and should be authorized to stop activities that are clearly unsafe, but the laboratory director remains ultimately responsible for safety in the laboratory.1

The safety officer may be either the safety director of the healthcare facility in which the laboratory is located, or a specifically designated laboratory safety officer. In those laboratories that have a laboratory safety committee, the laboratory safety officer should be at least an ex officio member of this committee. If the healthcare facility has a single safety committee, the laboratory should be represented, and specific laboratory issues should be addressed. Laboratories should review local, regional, and national regulations concerning the composition of a laboratory safety committee and meeting frequency.1

The laboratory safety officer or the laboratory director is responsible for providing guidance and direction to all sites that submit specimens to the laboratory. All specimens are to be transported to the laboratory in a manner that follows government regulations and prevents contamination of workers, the public, and the environment.1

The laboratory safety officer is responsible for periodically reviewing (at least annually) and updating the laboratory’s hazard identification system to ensure its relevance to known hazards.1

Fire hazard controls for use within the laboratory or laboratory units should be properly identified, and all doors leading into these areas should be marked, identifying specific hazards within. A recognized emblem system, such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)9 or Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals,10 should be used for this purpose.

Hazardous chemical waste disposal coordinator

One person in the laboratory needs to be designated to coordinate and be responsible for the laboratory’s hazardous chemical waste disposal. The coordinator should evaluate hazardous chemicals based on their hazardous properties, according to national and/or regional regulations. The evaluations should be documented and available for retrieval. Disposal procedures for hazardous waste should be communicated to employees using language that ensures their understanding.1

Radiation safety officer

Any laboratory that performs tests using radioactive materials needs to meet the requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), including a radiation control plan. The laboratory director needs to appoint a radiation safety officer (RSO) who is responsible for administering the radiation control plan and ensuring the laboratory complies with NRC requirements.1

Responsibilities of the laboratory employee

Laboratory employees are responsible for the following tasks:1

  • Complying with safety policies
  • Reporting unsafe working conditions
  • Reporting any accident or incident involving hazards
  • Using PPE appropriately and whenever required


Implementing a laboratory safety program is an effective way of protecting laboratory workers from hazards such as laboratory-acquired infections, radiation, and other hazardous materials. Although there are several employee roles responsible for ensuring safety in the laboratory, the laboratory director is ultimately responsible for the safety of the laboratory under his or her guidance.


  1. CLSI. Clinical Laboratory Safety; Approved Guideline—Third Edition. CLSI document GP17-A3. Wayne, PA: Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute; 2012.
  2. Pike RM. Laboratory-associated infections: incidence, fatalities, causes, and prevention. Annu Rev Microbiol. 1979;33:41-66.10.
  3. Baron EJ, Miller JM. Bacterial and fungal infections among diagnostic laboratory workers: evaluating the risks. Diagn Microbiol Infect Dis. 2008;60(3):241-246. doi: 10.1016/j.diagmicrobio.2007.09.01.
  4. CLSI. Protection of Laboratory Workers from Occupationally Acquired Infections; Approved Guideline—Fourth Edition. CLSI document M29-A4. Wayne, PA: Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute; 2014.
  5. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health. Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL). 5th ed. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2011.
  6. Snyder JW. Role of the hospital-based microbiology laboratory in preparation for and response to a bioterrorism event. J Clin Microbiol. 2003;41(1):1-4. doi: 10.1128/JCM.41.1.1-4.2003.
  7. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Select Agent Registry. http://www.selectagents​.gov. Accessed August 13, 2021.
  8. Delany JR, Pentella MA, Rodriguez JA, Shah KV, Baxley KP, Holmes DE. Guidelines for biosafety laboratory competency: CDC and the Association of Public Health Laboratories. MMWR. 2011;60(2):1-6. Accessed August 13, 2021.
  9. NFPA. Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response. NFPA 704. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association; 2012.
  10. US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A Guide to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). Accessed August 13, 2021.