Pipette use and safety; going beyond ergonomics. What are some potential risks?

Typically, when you hear about pipetting safety there are a few things that come to mind—mouth pipetting, ergonomics-related strains, and dripping and splashing, which in turn can cause cross-contamination. We don’t want to discount the risks associated with repetitive motion injuries, but in this piece, we explore other lab risks that could potentially lead to different types of injuries.  Before we move on…please do not ever perform mouth pipetting. There are safer and smarter ways!

Pipettes are widely used for many applications and are therefore exposed to diverse types of specimens and reagents. They introduce quality-specific concerns regarding accuracy and precision, and can also introduce safety risks, especially when the technologist is working with hazardous chemicals or specimens with a high infection risk. OSHA approaches can help ensure safety in the lab (see table below), let’s explore how.

OSHA Approach


Engineering Controls
Adapt the physical work environment in a way that minimizes exposure to hazards
  • Fume hoods
  • Biological safety cabinets
  • Designated clean room
  • For pipettes: having a designated set of pipettes in each specific area

Administrative Controls
Develop and communicate (in writing) procedures and practices that minimize exposure to hazards
  • Standard operating procedures (SOP)
  • Work instructions
  • Posting safety guidelines
  • For pipettes: Information regarding which pipettes and tips are appropriate for a specific use

Work Practices
Develop workflows and procedures that minimize exposure to hazards
  • Substituting a less hazardous chemical
  • For pipettes: clear labeling, knowing what you are working with can change how you handle the material to avoid exposure risk

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
PPE is a key protective measure
  • Lab coats
  • Gloves
  • Safety glasses
  • Respirators

Hazard: Laboratory spills

We all know that a chemical or infectious specimen spill can be tricky to clean up. If a spill occurs, take note of where small equipment such as pipettes may be, they could be affected and may need to be thoroughly decontaminated before being put back into use. The decontamination process may include taking the pipette apart (see ‘Aspirating into the pipette barrel’ below).

Keep in mind that pipettes could circulate around the lab area between different stations and users. Contamination, infection, and hazardous chemical-related injuries such as skin irritations/burns can quickly spread if not addressed.

How OSHA approaches help

One way to help educate everyone on decontamination practices is to ensure that appropriate administrative controls and work practices are in place and included in training protocols. As a side note for your own safety, make sure you are familiar with your laboratory’s spill containment procedure, prior to handling spills. If you have pipettes in fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, or segregated lab spaces, being familiar with chemicals/samples handled in those areas and whether or not pipettes may need special handling/maintenance precautions may come in handy.

Hazard: Not following procedure or training

As I mentioned above administrative controls and good work practices are two ways of ensuring laboratory safety. Can you think of examples of unsafe conditions caused by not following procedure or training?

I had a conversation with my colleague about this topic. She recalled a safety horror story from her days in graduate school. Someone contaminated a syringe needle with cesium chloride and did not dispose of it properly in the chemical sharps container, instead placing it in the general chemical waste. As the lab chemical safety officer, one of her roles was performing lab waste discards. As she was moving the small chemical waste bag into a larger container, she found a shocking surprise. She felt her hand pricked, through her glove, by the contaminated needle. Luckily the chemical exposure was small and she was OK, but still a scary experience that could have been much worse. All because someone did not properly discard the contaminated needle.

How OSHA approaches help

A similar experience could occur with pipette tips. They are in direct contact with specimens and ensuring they are appropriately discarded could save someone exposure risks like the one my colleague faced. Developing standard procedures for safety and ensuring that everyone is trained on them and follows them is an important first step to preventing exposure to hazardous situations.

Hazard: Using chemicals and samples that are not properly labeled

The act of pipetting puts the technologist in direct contact with the sample or chemical they are working with. If a technologist thinks they are using one thing, but it turns out to be another, serious complications can occur when trying to implement spill containment and first aid procedures. Spill procedures and first aid can differ greatly depending on the sample (infectious, radioactive, blood borne pathogen) and hazardous chemicals (corrosive, explosive, acute). Not knowing what you are working with can delay cleanup and medical attention for affected personnel. It can also make appropriate decontamination of the area (including affected pipettes) more difficult.

How OSHA approaches help

Appropriate labeling is a vital component of laboratory safety assurance, and falls into good work practice and possibly administrative control. Some chemicals and samples may need to be handled in specific locations such as hoods and clean rooms, which is where engineering controls and PPE may also come into play. By not labeling hazardous chemicals or infectious samples appropriately, the technologist can be seriously harmed while they are working, especially if pipetting. If you do notice something not labeled appropriately in the lab, please notify a supervisor or safety officer so that the labeling or disposal can be properly addressed.

Hazard: Aspirating into the pipette barrel

When a greater volume is aspirated than the pipette tip can handle, you may observe aspiration of that reagent or sample into the barrel. There are many different reasons this may happen, including misjudging a sample/reagent volume or not using the appropriate pipette/tip combination.

How OSHA approaches help

This is a great area to apply administrative controls so that appropriate tips are used. The right tip for the job can make a world of function and safety difference. For example, some filtered tips even have the capability of blocking liquid that would have been aspirated into the pipette. This ensures safety and reduces potential of contamination. If aspiration into the barrel does occur, remove the pipette from service until it can be appropriately cleaned and lubricated.

Contamination and potential safety hazards can spread if not resolved, and damage the pipette. The liquid will need to be safely removed from the barrel, the pipette will need to be decontaminated, and the pipette will need to be checked (calibrated) before returning it to the laboratory.

To prevent aspiration into the barrel, follow appropriate use and handling procedures, and that proper tips are available. It’s also wise to know the pipette manufacturer’s decontamination and disassembly procedures so that in the event of contamination, it can be resolved quickly. NOTE: If you are working with an electronic pipette you may also need to include a “lock out/tag out” approach as you will also need to take safe electrical handling into account.

Staying safe in the lab

Appropriate safety measures can make the difference when trying to keep an accident from becoming a tragedy. Engineering and administrative controls, good work practices, and PPE are critical for optimal equipment and technician performance. It’s “safe” to say that safety procedures are vital to ensuring health and success for the technician and equipment.

Additional Resources

About the Author

breeann bryanBreeann Bryan

Breeann Bryan is a dedicated laboratory professional with a LEAN Six Sigma Black Belt. Her background ranges from the bench to operations management. She is proud to share the knowledge she has gained from her experience and empower others to tackle their process improvement challenges. Whether it’s troubleshooting data quality issues or finding out how to maximize efficiency in the lab, she firmly believes that everyone deserves to have the right tools needed for the job.