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Safety in the Life Sciences

Discusses the precautions taken by scientists to stay safe in the lab and in the field.

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What does this sign mean?

If a substance is corrosive, it can eat through objects. Many people work with chemicals every day that are corrosive or otherwise dangerous. Following safety rules in the laboratory or in the workplace is very important.

Safety Symbols

Lab procedures and equipment may be labeled with safety symbols. These symbols warn of specific hazards, such as flammable or toxic chemicals. Learn the symbols so you will recognize the dangers. Then learn how to avoid them. Many common safety symbols are shown below.

License: CC BY-NC 3.0


What is WHMIS?

WHMIS stands for the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System.  Many people work with dangerous chemicals every day, and this system was developed to quickly and visually give information about the types of dangers.  Different chemicals need to be handled differently, depending on the type and level of danger.

Compressed gas cylinders (Class A) can explode if damaged or heated.  Flammable chemicals (Class B) should be kept away from open flames or sparks.  Oxidizers (Class C) can cause fires without a spark, because they react strongly and release heat. Class D materials are poisonous or toxic.  Since some materials are very toxic, while others require a larger exposure to be dangerous, they are separated into Class D-1 & D-2.  Class D-3 are biological hazards (including bacteria and viruses) which can cause diseases.  Corrosive materials (Class E) include strong acids which can eat away at materials, including flesh.  Class F chemicals are dangerously reactive.  When chemicals react quickly or unexpectedly, they can splash or explode

Other common hazard symbols include materials that are explosive (such as aerosol cans), radioactive materials (such as medical radiation) and electrical hazards (such as power lines or transformers)

Science laboratory safety and chemical hazard signs.

If you perform an experiment in your classroom, your teacher will explain how to be safe. Safety practices must be followed when working with the hazardous things such as parasites, radiation and radioactive materials, toxins, and even wild animals. Professional scientists follow safety rules, especially for the study of dangerous organisms like the bacteria that cause bubonic plague (Figure below). If researchers are not careful, they could poison themselves or contract a deadly illness.

Scientists studying dangerous organisms such as Yersinia pestis, the cause of bubonic plague, use special equipment that helps keep the organism from escaping the lab.

Scientists studying dangerous organisms such as bacteria or viruses, use special equipment that helps keep them safe and prevents the organism from escaping the lab.


Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Should you apply cosmetics in a lab? Why or why not? Do you think this differs between a biological lab and a chemical lab?
  2. What should you do if there is an accident?
  3. How should you dispose of waste?
  1. List the lab safety rules covered in the video.
  2. What kind of clothing should you wear in a science lab?
  3. What should you wear in a science lab that you would not wear usually outside a science lab?


1. What kinds of hazards might be found in biology laboratories, but not physics laboratories?

2. Who has more freedom to do whatever research they want? Laboratory scientists or field biologists?

3. What is a biohazard?

4. What is a research permit?

5. What are some of the precautions you might take if you were collecting frogs in water you think might be polluted?

6. Name some possible hazards to field biologists.

7. You want to complete field research on the border between the United States and Canada. Before you begin, what precautions should you take?

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  1. [1]^ License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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