What are the most important safety rules? We're not talking about your wish list of safety protocols that it would be nice if people followed, but the absolute non-negotiable safety fundamentals. What safety rules do you feel so strongly about that if someone refused to follow them, you don’t want that person in the lab next to you?

When the Laboratory Safety Institute recently asked that question on five different science and safety-related internet discussion groups, people shot back replies almost immediately, and within hours, these five bubbled to the top:

  1. Proper PPE
  2. Proper clothing under the PPE
  3. No food, drink, chewing gum, or applying cosmetics in the lab
  4. Don't work alone or have a plan if you must (buddy system)
  5. Conduct a hazard analysis of lab activities

(The complete rank-ordered list is available on the resources page of the Laboratory Safety Institute’s website.)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that wearing proper PPE and not eating in the lab made the list of lab safety non-starters. On the other hand, hazard analysis may not be as obvious, but it definitely occupies a well-deserved place in the top five. Over the last six decades, the Laboratory Safety Institute has increased emphasis on hazard determination and risk assessment, placing the following four questions at the crux of the educational content in all its courses:

  1. What are the hazards?
  2. What are the worst possible things that can go wrong?
  3. What do you need to do to be prepared?
  4. What are the protective facilities, prudent practices, and personal protective equipment needed to minimize the risk?

These four questions could be considered the “grandfather of RAMP,” a similar safety framework adopted by the American Chemical Society in recent years. (RAMP stands for recognize hazards, assess the risks of the hazards, minimize the risks of the hazards, and prepare for emergencies).

Failing to perform even a basic risk assessment is serious and potentially life-threatening. If an employee refuses to do so, and all the training, coaching, cajoling and mentoring provided are not convincing them, serious measures must be taken.

If you've reached the end of the rope with serious lab safety violations, the Laboratory Safety Institute recommends the following 5-step procedure. (Do this in cooperation with your HR department and be sure to document everything.)


  1. Tell the employee “this is our final mentoring / coaching session on this policy.”
  2. Give an official verbal warning.
  3. Give an official written warning. Have the person sign a statement indicating that he / she understands the rule or SOP.
  4. Impose a paid decision-making leave of absence: one day off to the consider whether to a) resign or b) return to work and sign a statement acknowledging that if the rule or SOP is violated again, they will be terminated.
  5. Termination. If a person continues to put themselves, others, and the organization at risk, minimizing that risk may mean showing that person the door.