Working with Biological Specimens Safely in the Lab

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  • 0:01 Why Use Biological Specimens?
  • 1:25 Safe Handling of Specimens
  • 3:33 Disposing of…
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Working with biological specimens can be interesting and rewarding. But we need to be careful when handling and disposing of these types of specimens because they do have the potential to do harm both in and out of the lab.

Why Use Biological Specimens?

If you're really lucky, in your lab, you'll get to work with biological specimens, which are any biological tissues, fluids, or organisms. At first, you might be grossed out because often these are preserved animals and other organisms. But with biological specimens we get the exciting opportunity to learn first-hand about anatomy, physiology, bio-chemical processes, disease, health, nutrition, and so much more.

There are any number of reasons you might be working with biological specimens. For example, if you're taking a biology class, you'll likely do dissections of various animals during your lab sessions. It's important to take advantage of these opportunities because you'll learn an incredible amount about how animals look on the inside. You might even be surprised to learn just how similar many animals are to us when it comes to their anatomy!

Or, if you're in a medical lab, you might be working with human or animal tissues to test disease treatments, effects of harmful substances, tissue growth, or something else. Or, maybe you're a wildlife biologist and you're working with bat guano, picking it apart to see which insects different species of bats prefer to eat. No matter why you're working with biological specimens, it's important that you know how to handle them properly. This will ensure the safety of you and others working in the lab, and lab safety goes hand-in-hand with lab fun.

Safe Handling of Specimens

As you've just seen, biological specimens are instrumental for a variety of professions, and they can provide us with a lot of helpful information. But it's important for those of us working in the lab to handle specimens properly to avoid contamination and other health hazards.

Think about it - if you're cooking chicken for dinner, you use a separate cutting board and knife, and you make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before touching the other ingredients. This is because the chicken in your kitchen is like a biological specimen in a lab - when handled correctly, it's just what you need; but when handled improperly, you could make your entire family sick very quickly!

Unlike your chicken dinner, but just like anything else in the lab, definitely don't put your biological specimens in your mouth! This sounds like a simple lab rule, but you'd be surprised how many times this type of action leads to totally preventable accidents.

It's also important to wear protective gear while working with any biological specimen. Depending on what you're working with, it may be necessary to wear eye goggles, a lab coat, and an apron. But, at minimum, you should at least wear gloves to protect your hands. Many of the specimens that are used in biology labs are preserved with formaldehyde, which is great for preservation, but can be dangerous if you get it on your skin, in your eyes, or breathe in the fumes.

If you're working with live organisms, which is often the case in medical research labs, you may need to protect yourself from bites, scratches, or other contact with your specimens. Live animals present an entirely different range of possible accidents than preserved animals, so your handling protocols may be quite extensive, and you should familiarize yourself with them for your own safety, as well as the safety of others.

As mentioned before, you may be working with human tissues or bodily fluids in your lab, which are common disease vectors. If these are the types of specimens you'll be working with, you'll need to be extra careful and follow all safety precautions outlined for you. Gloves, eye protection, and lab coats are hard minimums because they will protect your hands, eyes, skin, and clothing from contact with possibly dangerous or deadly samples.

Disposing of Biological Specimens

Once you're finished working with your specimens, you're done, right? Just pick everything up and toss it in the garbage? Definitely not! As with anything else in the lab, disposal of a specimen depends entirely on what the specimen is.

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