Designing Accessible Laboratory Spaces for People with Disabilities

Young woman in wheelchair wearing safety goggles and working at a lab.
When designing a laboratory, all users – including individuals who are disabled – should be taken into consideration so the space provides a safe and effective working environment for everyone. Photo Credit: Dr. Patricia Redden, Saint Peter's College.

If you’re an architect, engineer, or lab manager involved in facilities development for the medical, biotechnology, basic sciences, or pharmaceutical field, it’s important to know how to design laboratories that will be safe and accessible for people with a range of disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a set of legal standards that provide key regulations to guide general building design to meet a spectrum of differences, including mobility, motor control, vision, hearing, and much more; these standards can be extremely relevant—not only in the United States, but also beyond.

“The United States Access Board offers the Guide to the ADA Standards, which is a manual to help designers properly apply the ADA Standards. This information can be of great interest to lab designers in other parts of the world, as well,” explains Janet S. Baum, AIA, MArch, Co-Program Director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s course, Guidelines for Laboratory Design: Health and Safety Considerations. She is joined in this role by Co-Program Director Louis J. DiBerardinis, MS, CIH, CSP. Both Baum and DiBerardinis draw on several decades of laboratory design experience to remind laboratory designers to keep a focus on the health and safety of all end users in their projects.

Going beyond the ADA Framework

Baum points out that while the ADA Standards are essential, the laws alone often don’t go far enough to meet the needs of people with a range of different abilities. “Disabilities are highly specific to the individual, so laboratory facility owners have to adapt the spaces to meet their needs,” she adds.

While this may sound straightforward, the challenges can be quite steep. Historically, laboratory design and equipment have been configured for able-bodied users. This means that people in wheelchairs or those who use mobility aids, and those with any type of different abilities, may find it challenging to navigate the space, raising a number of health, safety, and accessibility challenges.

“Further, the ADA Standards apply mainly to the design of fixed building elements related to providing accessible routes,” Baum explains. But moveable elements and furnishings are generally not covered, with the exception of work surfaces, such as laboratory desks.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a set of legal standards that provide key regulations to guide general building design to meet a spectrum of differences, including mobility, motor control, vision, hearing, and much more.

Tips to Guide Accessible Laboratory Design Choices

To help architects and designers maximize their efforts in ensuring labs are safe and effective, Baum and DiBerardinis say it’s important to incorporate the federal ADA Standards (typically with guidance from the Guide to the ADA Standards on how to apply them), as well as state and local building regulations—and also to look beyond these for other design choices that ensure optimal user safety.

To this end, they offer the following recommendations:

  • Ensure adequate aisle width. People working in labs need to access multiple areas. For those in a wheelchair, being able to make 90-degree, 180-degree, and even 360-degree turns is essential to allow them to be able to pull in and out of their work station. This is also critical so they can move away from a hazard, incident, or explosion safely, quickly, and efficiently, Baum stresses. The current Guide to the ADA Standards explains aisle width should be up to 60 inches to enable a wheelchair to turn-around. Baum says this is ideal for most circumstances so people can move safely up and down the center without bumping into people working with hazardous materials at the benches on either side. The Guide also shows other circulation pathways where narrower aisles may be permitted.
  • Provide enough knee to toe clearance. This refers to the depth of space for the lower part of an individual’s legs (from the knee down) so they can safely pull a wheelchair under a fixed work surface. “A normal bench is 37 inches high, which is too high for many people who are of smaller stature, have spinal problems, or are in a wheelchair,” Baum says. The Guide sets the height of an accessible desk at no more than 34 inches and no less than 28 inches above the floor, with at least 27 inches of knee clearance underneath. “Lower-level countertops also become good locations to place tall equipment or top-loading equipment that is otherwise difficult to reach. Fine motor control and visual access improve when knee space is provided for workers to sit comfortably at all counter heights,” she says.
  • Look for flexible-height work stations. Baum says this is easiest to adapt to a range of needs. When time or budget is limited, she recommends looking to manufactured commercial benches that come in different lengths and can be raised or lowered by the user to meet their unique requirements. The depth of a work station also needs to be considered, since an individual with a disability who is sitting on a stool or in a wheelchair will need to be able to comfortably reach things like gas controls, water faucets, electric outlets and light switches.
  • Pay attention to placement of furniture. “Within a lab setting, something as simple as where you place equipment or furniture can eliminate access for people with disabilities if users of the lab are not mindful of the ongoing need to evaluate the space for barriers,” Baum says. Safety equipment should be located adjacent to accessible routes, but can’t block exits. Making educated placement choices can ensure lab safety and also ensure that people with limited mobility or other disabilities can access what they need.
  • Design for sensory needs. Because some people in the laboratory may have low vision or be hearing impaired, it’s essential to find ways to address these limitations. Baum says for people with low sight, there are a number of physical design elements to use. This includes using a marine edge on the countertop, which is a raised ridge along the edges so people can feel it if they have difficulty seeing. She also advises using contrasting colors, such as dark and light surfaces, that are easier for people with sight impairments to make out. In addition, safety features like eye wash stations need to be accessible for people in wheelchairs and there must be accessible signage for people who also have low vision. For people with hearing loss, there is a real danger that they could miss important signals, such as a fire alarm or alarm triggered by a toxic gas release. One way to counteract this is by including flashing lights on sirens so people can see – and not just hear – them.
  • Pay attention to chemical fume hoods. This ventilation device plays an essential part in laboratory safety, since it provides a way to limit an individual’s exposure to hazardous chemical fumes, vapors, and splashes. Yet many chemical fume hoods today don’t take into account the needs of people with disabilities, raising the risk of dangerous exposure to toxins. DiBerardinis stresses the importance of understanding the needs of the individual with the disability to design a safe chemical fume hood for their circumstances. He says that this can typically include making the depth shallower to allow easier reach inside, and making the height lower to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, as well as providing adequate knee space.

Thoughtful Design Creates Safer Laboratories

When designers, architects, and other stakeholders take into account the federal ADA Standards and Guide to the ADA Standards, along with building codes and individual needs, Baum and DiBerardinis agree this can lead to the creation of laboratories configured for optimal health, safety, and performance for everyone who comes through the doors.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Guidelines for Laboratory Design, an applied program focusing on the needs of diverse stakeholders to ensure safe laboratories.