Five Ways Effective Laboratory Design Impacts Health, Safety, and Productivity

Effective laboratory design goes beyond providing a safe environment. It ensures lab users are hazard-free and in a healthy environment – all while getting their work done.

What comes to mind when you think of a laboratory? Perhaps scientific equipment – or maybe even all you’ve heard that can go wrong, like chemical explosions or fires. Many people believe that labs aren’t well-regulated or monitored or imagine absentminded scientists ignoring safety in the pursuit of a breakthrough. These more dangerous scenarios are not the norm in most laboratories, especially when they are designed with safety in mind.

“There’s a perception that labs have become more dangerous, based on some high-profile lab disasters over the last few years,” says Louis DiBerardinis, CIH, CSP, Director of Environment, Health, and Safety at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Program Co-Director of Guidelines for Laboratory Design at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “However, there is not a lot of data to support that perception. Labs are not as dangerous as people think, largely due to the movement to design them in ways that promote the health and safety of lab users.”

Labs are not as dangerous as people think, largely due to the movement to design them in ways that promote the health and safety of lab users.

In addition to impacting the health and safety of users, labs that are designed well and with attention to detail can lead to a fully productive workplace. Here are five ways that effective design impacts health, safety, and productivity:

1. Lab users’ needs are fulfilled.

To design a lab that supports both safety and productivity, the design team must start by determining specifications, such as how people will use the lab (including what materials or processes will be used), how many people will be working there, what their roles are, and how much space is needed. This ensures that everything included in the design will serve a purpose in supporting lab users’ productivity. As a result, workers will have the equipment and materials they need to carry out their tasks.

“To begin the design process, you don’t necessarily ask people what they need or want, because they don’t always know,” said DiBerardinis. “Ask what they’ll do, and you’ll get a much clearer picture of what their needs are. This is your fundamental starting point for safe and efficient lab design.”

“People entering the sciences to perform research may also have special requirements to work safely in laboratories. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and subsequent development of laboratories for persons with disabilities has brought new considerations to laboratory design,” says Janet Baum, MArch, AIA, Laboratory Architect and Program Co-Director of Guidelines for Laboratory Design. “Many ADA accommodations have proven very beneficial to many able-bodied workers, such as persons shorter or taller than the average 5’10” American male, workers who are aging and/or exhibit a wide range of physical and sensory difficulties, and women who are pregnant. All these find laboratory-working conditions more useful and safe.”

2. The probability of everyday accidents decreases.

Proper lab design can’t eliminate hazards – many accidents are caused by human error or bad luck – but improper design does increase the probability of negative incidents. In addition to putting people at the risk of harm, these incidents ultimately decrease productivity, as they hinder the researchers’ ability to work. Hazards in the lab can range from fires to falls to eye damage and beyond, all of which can both harm lab users and shut down or delay work. A lab designed for safety makes these accidents less likely. When users have adequate workspaces and aisles between them, they won’t bump into each other; sprinkler systems can extinguish fires before they spread; and chemical spills and other hazards can be contained quickly, efficiently, and with minimal harm when appropriate warning systems and cleaning materials are available.

3. The layout will be suitable for activities in the lab.

A well-designed lab’s layout provides appropriate storage, equipment, and workspaces. For example, simple cabinets may be adequate for electronics, but chemicals often require more complex storage spaces. By providing the appropriate accommodations, it becomes less likely that lab space will be wasted. In addition, lab users can avoid storing supplies in places that block exits or cause other dangerous conditions. For example, potentially hazardous materials and equipment should be stored and used in lab zones away from heavy traffic flow and ventilation sources that cause disruptive airflows.

“Appropriate laboratory storage is one key component often deleted from the construction budget to gain cost savings. This is a false economy,” says Baum. “If adequate storage isn’t provided then equipment and materials occupy lab benches, lab bench knee-spaces, and lab aisles. All of these reduce valuable area to work efficiently and safely.”

Proper lab layout also ensures the ergonomics of the workspace don’t impede workflow. This means that the lab is designed in a way that provides everyone ample space to work and allows researchers to carry out their work efficiently and in the correct order.

“Poor layout from a work perspective can decrease productivity by creating extra handling steps or travel time,” says DiBerardinis. “The idea is to have things arranged as an assembly line where each step is done in sequence without traveling back and forth between steps. This is especially critical in some lab types, such as clinical, QA/QC, or commercial labs, where lab users are more likely to move from process to process in precise sequences.”

“Good locations can not only improve equipment performance, but also improve workers’ ability to concentrate and work efficiently,” says Baum.

4. Users can focus on their tasks instead of worrying about emergencies.

When designing a lab, it is crucial to include vital safety features, such as biosafety cabinets, fire protection and detection systems, and emergency showers and eye wash stations. When users know these features are easily available, they can focus on performing their research with a greater measure of security regarding their health and safety, and thus be more productive. In addition, labs should have easy-to-access, well-marked exits so that researchers can get out quickly and safely in case of an emergency or accident.

To further enhance safety, designers should include ventilation systems based on users’ activities. All labs should have ventilation systems to control the temperature and keep the space comfortable, especially as research shows that optimal workplace temperatures can increase productivity, no matter the work environment. In addition, when hazardous materials are being used, ventilation systems should be more advanced and may require features such as chemical fume hoods to control potential exposure and capture contaminants in laboratory air.

5. The lab can be adapted for future research needs.

It is important to get a sense of how research efforts in the lab might change in the future – even five or more years out. A design with some flexibility built in will allow you to include features that lab users might not need now, but could benefit from later, such as more and/or moveable workbenches or advanced ventilation for chemical work.

“Sometimes the type of research happening in the lab will change, but often it is changes such as the number of people using the lab or additional equipment that must be accounted for,” says DiBerardinis. “The biggest complaint that lab designers hear is not having enough outlets or storage space as the project grows.”

Safety is only one discipline involved in lab design; lab planners must also work with architects, engineers, and the researchers who will use the lab.

As a large volume of factors impact a laboratory’s design, it is crucial that all stakeholders – from scientists, environmental health and safety staff, and facilities managers to architects, engineers, and construction managers – work together to ensure the plan will promote health and safety, and ultimately increase productivity.

“Safety is only one discipline involved in lab design; lab planners must also work with architects, engineers, and the researchers who will use the lab,” says DiBerardinis. “Everyone wants to design a useful facility, so they need to work together and understand each others’ vision, limits, and skills in order to be successful.”

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. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.