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Environmental Health & Safety

Minimizing Contamination within Laboratories

When we think of labs and lab safety, our first thought is usually the major hazard classes of chemicals, biologics, and radiation. While these are the major safety categories of concern, there are overall guiding principles in laboratory that pose potential health risks if ignored. One of these is concerns is cross contamination. This happens when an unintentional transfer of microorganisms, chemical contaminants, or any other foreign substance is spread from one object or person to another.

In labs there are many ways for cross contamination to occur. Some of the most common are the innocuous and easily overlooked, but the easiest to fix. The best way to mitigate contamination in a lab, no matter the source, is to first recognize your potential for hazards. The next step is to identify, than segregate the materials and utensils that will be used both with gloves, lab coats, and other safety measures, and those without. Some people prefer to segregate areas and objects with distance, defined rooms, or Plexiglas dividers.

If physical space is not an option, or the space is communal, one of the easiest ways to identify these potential hazards is to mark the upper part of utensils, pens, or containers with a piece of red tape. This red tape signifies “red is dead”, meaning that anything marked with this red tape should be considered hazardous. These identified objects are only to be used in active lab areas and only with gloves on. They are not meant to be used without gloves, and subsequently outside lab areas.

This method can be easily incorporated into a lab’s current practices, but also easily expanded to suit other needs. Whether it’s color-coding items to identify a person or group’s materials, or to identify a specific chemical or biological hazard within the lab, this system can be tailored to every lab’s needs. It is not however, a substitute for proper chemical labeling, identifiers, or other safety practices. As always, be mindful of commonly touch items inside the lab, such as light switches, door knobs, sink areas, and chairs.

No matter how this system is employed, it should be known throughout the lab what the specific tape color means, and should be written down and kept in the lab’s procedure documentation for reference and training.

There are many ways to diminish possible routes of contamination, but it is usually the simplest that are the most utilized, and therefore the most effective. Talk with you group today and note if there are any ways to eliminate possibly routes of contamination.

Tomorrow - your reward for working safely today.  ~Attributed to Robert Pelton

For additional information concerning laboratory safety, please visit our EH &S Website at

Contact EH&S at (585) 275-3241 or e-mail EH&S Questions.

This page last updated 4/1/2014. Disclaimer.