Responding to Emergency Situations in the Lab

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Science laboratories can be dangerous places. This lesson will discuss how to respond to various emergency situations one might encounter in the lab, from cuts and burns, to corrosive and poisonous substances, to fires.

Laboratory Emergencies

A science lab holds many toxic chemicals and corrosive acids and can be dangerous if you're not careful. Explosions, spills, and burns are always possible when working in a lab. This is particularly true in chemistry labs. It is therefore important to be prepared for emergencies when they occur and know exactly what to do and how to do it. This will help keep you and those around you safe and secure.

Let's consider some of the steps to take when laboratory emergencies happen.

Cuts and Burns

To prepare for cuts and burns, all laboratories should contain first aid kits and a water supply. Minor burns should first be immersed in cold water or placed under a tap running cold water until the pain stops. Burns can then be covered with a sterile dressing.

With cuts, pressure should be applied until the bleeding stops. Hands and feet can be elevated to make the bleeding stop quicker. Cuts should also be cleaned with soap and water when possible, and an ointment (such as Neosporin) should be used on the wound to reduce the risk of infection. Major cuts may require stitches.

Poisons and Corrosive Substances

To avoid being contaminated with corrosive substances, people in a lab should wear protective eye goggles and lab coats and/or aprons. Ideally, labs should also contain an emergency shower and eye flushing fountain.

Wear a lab coat and goggles for safety
Wear a lab coat and goggles for safety

Contamination from poisons or chemicals that are corrosive is a real risk in a science lab. Some highly dangerous substances may require the immediate evacuation of the lab or building, but in most cases you can take more minor action.

Emergency shower sign
Emergency shower sign

Any excess material (such as solids) can first be brushed off. For small spills on the skin or eyes, flush with water for at least 15 minutes. In some cases, water will make the burning sensation worse at first, but it is important to get the material off your body as soon as possible. Any jewelry or clothing that may contain residue should be removed for cleaning or discarded. If a strong acid like hydrofluoric acid is involved, it's best to flush for 5 minutes and apply calcium gluconate gel to the skin or eyes. Calcium gluconate gel is an alkali (or base) that neutralizes the acid. If this gel is not available, continue to flush with water.

Eye wash sign
Eye wash sign

If poisons are ingested, the person should immediately proceed to the emergency room. Poison control should also be contacted for advice. Different poisons require different responses if they are consumed. This might include charcoal treatments, swallowing water, consuming antidotes, or using stomach pumps. Getting advice is important here, because a good choice for one poison can actually make matters worse for another.


The first step in responding to a fire emergency in the lab happens before a fire even occurs - preparation. You should know your room's evacuation route and procedures, as well as the location of the nearest fire alarm, fire extinguisher, and fire blanket.

Fire extinguisher sign - there are many types
Fire extinguisher sign - there are many types

In a fire occurs, safety is the most important thing. Make sure that you and those with you know how (and where) to evacuate to a safe position. You should follow the evacuation plan established for your room or building, and close doors behind you after everyone has left. When you are in a safe position, pulling a fire alarm is the next and easiest step to take (if the alarm is not already going off). This could be done en route to the evacuation location. If someone catches on fire, they should stop, drop, and roll. They can also be doused with water or patted with a fire blanket.

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