By Guest Author Deepa Kundadka
Did you know that going green and having sustainable programs in laboratories can make labs safer? And lower the worker compensation rate by keeping employee injuries and illnesses to a minimum?
Think about it. Laboratories are considered high energy consumers as they use fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, vacuum pumps, consumables, and solvents, among others. Speaking from experience, I recently led efforts towards getting a major Biotech Research & Development (R&D) laboratory certified through My Green Lab’s Green Lab Certification program. I am proud that they achieved the highest level of green certification through their consistent sustainability efforts in the laboratories. During this certification journey, we learned a lot about various aspects of laboratory energy consumers.
Freezer Efficiency Reduces Risk
While learning about reduction of high energy consumption in the lab through the certification, we also touched upon safety aspects of the laboratory elements. For instance, we learned about the Freezer Challenge. In an R&D laboratory, the scientist community stores a lot of biological specimens, study samples, and reagents in the cold storage units popularly known as -80 and -20 freezers. The Freezer Challenge gives laboratory scientists an opportunity to make efficient use of freezer space by assessing current inventory of study samples and purging those that are no longer needed. It also creates awareness of freezer preventative maintenance programs, with freezer maintenance tips that include ensuring filters are replaced at least once a year or on a periodic schedule.
A well-maintained freezer not only makes the freezer efficient, but also makes it safer for employees by reducing frost build up in the freezers and thereby minimizing injury associated with frostbite. While this may seem like a minor thing, it really is a game changer. If this challenge were not in place, scientists would not be motivated to maintain sample inventory, which can lead to scientists accumulating samples for years and then needing extra freezers. Additional freezers mean an increase in energy consumption, space requirement, additional maintenance, and cost.
The employee engagement and leadership opportunities the challenge provides to the employees are priceless. When my client won the Freezer Challenge award, they received increased visibility from management. The challenge also notifies scientists on the amount of energy they saved because of their participation in the challenge, which gave a sense of accomplishment to the scientists and made it worthwhile for them to be part of the program.
Green Chemistry Reduces Exposure to Harmful Solvents
Another new learning opportunity came through green chemistry. Greener alternatives to chemicals and solvents are safer for employees and help in reducing employee exposure to harmful solvents. The education and awareness around this topic were invaluable. It opened a new door towards thinking about the substitution of solvents with safer and greener alternatives among the scientist population. These efforts have a positive impact on the health and safety of people in the lab and those supporting the labs, and generally reduce costs associated with lab operations.
As one of their sustainability goals, my client site took part in the Fume Hood Challenge. The challenge involved making sure sashes were closed when scientists completed work and that fume hood, glassware, and solvents were stored in their respective locations such as shelves and flammable cabinets.
It also increased awareness about elevating the equipment in the fume hood to improve airflow, keeping the sash at the recommended height, and working at least 10 cm inside the fume hood to maximize airflow and thereby reduce employee exposure to chemicals and solvents. While addressing sustainability, we also touched upon employee safety while working at the fume hood. In addition, it made the scientists aware of the annual certification of fume hoods. Although facilities and engineering departments typically keep the annual certification of fume hoods on their radar - at times fume hoods miss annual certification due to human error. As scientists learned about this, we had an extra set of eyes looking at these annual certification requirements.
Small Yet Impactful Sustainability Practices Matter
Even little things go a long way. Shared printers and setting up printers on double sided, black and white mode as default settings helps to reduce paper waste and clutter in the laboratory. Reduced clutter helps in maintaining cleaner laboratory space. Besides printers, sharing commonly used equipment such as plate washers and vortexes help to free up benchtop space. As a group approach, when employees start sharing equipment, running autoclaves and glass wash when they are full not only helps in water conservation and energy saving – but also helps in establishing standard laboratory practices and promotes longevity of the equipment.
Opt for ENERGY STAR Rated Equipment
Having a buy-in from procurement from the get-go helps research labs to purchase equipment that has an ENERGY STAR rating. For example, standard compressor-based ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers demand large amounts of power to operate in the lab, consuming as much electricity as the average U.S. household. Stirling Ultracold ULT freezers use up to 75% less energy to operate than standard compressor-based systems. They use their innovative free-piston Stirling Ultracold engine technology. By replacing traditional ULT freezers with ENERGY STAR-certified units, such as the Stirling Ultracold upright, laboratories can greatly reduce both energy use and carbon footprint. These ULT freezers also give off much less heat than the traditional compressor-based ULT freezers. This reduced heat demands less from running air conditioners to maintain comfortable interior temperatures, thereby reducing heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) operating costs and designed-in facility capital cost.
Traditional -80 freezers use ozone depleting substances (ODS) as refrigerants. At the end of their lifecycle, the facilities team must manage them appropriately to ensure ODS gases are disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner. With Stirling, we do not have to worry about that as they use natural refrigerants. It makes it safer for facilities to manage the end of product life cycle disposal requirements and thereby reduce the employee risk associated with handling traditional -80s.
Biological Safety Cabinets and Material Management
Biological Safety Cabinets (BSC) are used in the research lab to conduct research on biological specimens. A BSC is a ventilated enclosure offering protection to the user, the product, and the environment from aerosols arising from the handling of potentially hazardous microorganisms. The continuous airflow is discharged to the atmosphere via a HEPA filter.
Maintaining and keeping the BSC clean after use protects employees from blood-borne pathogen related illnesses and minimizes laboratory acquired infections. Educating scientists on the use of UV lights for no more than 30 minutes not only saves energy but keeps employees safe from exposure to UV light.
Material management and chemical inventory is a huge aspect in the research laboratory. Educating scientists on correctly sizing the chemical inventory helps to reduce storage space and waste created by duplication of orders. The First In/First Out policy helps to consume chemicals in the order of their expiration date thereby reducing hazardous waste generation. Proper chemical storage, separation of incompatible chemicals, and use of secondary containment helps to minimize laboratory accidents and fires along with protection of cabinets from residues of reactive chemicals.
Although research labs typically only carry biowaste, hazardous waste containers, and a trash can at the maximum, having additional options such as recycling and compost bins help the laboratory to reduce waste and clutter. When sustainability becomes part of the culture in the laboratory, employees feel particularly good when they can recycle good quality empty reagent plastic bottles and glass bottles. This reduces the company's greenhouse gas emission - what could have ended up in a landfill will now be segregated in terms of trash, recycling, and compost. If the company is working towards a zero waste goal, this can help significantly.
Sustainability and Safety Go Hand in Hand
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that promoting sustainability in labs not only keeps the lab safer, but proves to be a great return on investment. Scientists and lab support staff feel good about greener approaches to laboratory practices - it keeps things fresh and innovative in terms of employee engagement. As described with various examples, sustainable laboratories contribute towards safer lab practices and makes it very conducive for running lab programs flawlessly. Sustainability and safety in the lab go hand in hand and help the company to save money in the long run.
Guest Author Deepa Kundadka, Founder & CEO of DKK Safety and Environmental, started the company in 2017. She is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) by profession. She has a Master’s degree in Safety Sciences from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her expertise includes laboratory sustainability, zero waste, risk management, industrial hygiene, laboratory safety and biosafety among others. She has over 13 years of experience in the industry. In her recent project, she helped a major biotech organization to obtain the highest level of the My Green Lab Certification. She has also led other projects in sustainability such as LEED certification, International Freezer Challenge, Fume Hood Challenge, and Zero Waste certification among others. You can learn more about DKK Safety and Environmental at www.dkksafety.com