Laboratory Safety Enhanced by Sustainability

Contributor III
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Contributed by Ellen Sweet, Laboratory Ventilation Specialist, Cornell Department of Environmental Health and Safety; Mark Howe, Energy Manager, Cornell Department of Energy and Sustainability; and Spring Buck, Associate Director, Cornell Facilities Management.

Use of hazardous materials in laboratory experiments is inherently part of working in most laboratories. The choices of which of these materials used is an important role researchers and lab supervisors can play in reducing the environmental impact of their lab’s work. These choices can also impact the health and safety of people working in the space, operational costs such as the amount of mechanical ventilation necessary to work safely, and environmental impacts such as wastes generated. Chemical health and safety, the cost effective operation of facilities, and environmental compliance are all enhanced by sustainability efforts.

Achieving compliance with complex local, state, and federal regulations, and reducing the human and environmental impact of a lab are inherently intertwined. Sustainability efforts, including the principles of Green Chemistry, support the best use of institutional equipment and resources. 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.

However, with scientific research being the primary purpose of a lab, consciously incorporating sustainability into lab operations is often not an intuitive priority for lab supervisors and Principal Investigators. Prudent management of hazardous materials, along with the principles of Green Chemistry, support productive and successful research and education. Some key steps for implementation of sustainable lab management include:

  • Understand the hazards associated with the work being performed in a lab. This is a skill to be learned by all students and laboratory staff working in the laboratory environment.
  • Consider the health and safety aspects of laboratory work. Incorporate this information into the planning of experimental procedures that involves hazardous materials, including disposal of materials as they are no longer needed.
  • Consider and plan appropriately for the following:
    • Types and volumes of chemicals that are needed
    • Where in the lab the experiment should be conducted
    • Whether the procedure can be safely done on the benchtop or whether it should be conducted in a fume hood or glove box
  • Reach out to Health and Safety professionals for advice on regulations and best practices. Additional examples of actions, and associated benefits, are outlined in the following table:



These efforts pay off both financially and socially. The costs of supporting science education and research is becoming a larger concern as energy costs and climate change are an increasing social priority. Ventilation costs to support safe conduct of laboratory work is one of the biggest overhead costs associated with lab research.  Utility costs per square foot of lab area is 2-2.5 times that of office and classroom use.


                                                                           (Climate Action Plan, 2013)

At Cornell, energy conservation projects over the past decade have reduced energy use by 20%, while lowering the campus Energy Use Intensity (EUI) from 186 kBtu/Sf-yr to 157 kBtu/Sf-Yr.  Future projects will continue to reduce lab energy use while maintaining occupant comfort and safety.


Laboratory wastes, whether hazardous or unregulated solid waste, are costly to discard. Controlling the purchase and storage of chemicals reduces waste generation. If not handled properly these potentially impact not only the environment, but the custodial and waste management staff who must handle the wastes downstream.

Advancing sustainability on academic campuses takes ongoing collaboration between laboratory staff, and the institutional Environmental Health & Safety, Energy Management and Sustainability departments. Each plays an important role in the operational decisions of the laboratory and the long term institutional support of science education and research. Green Lab programs around the U.S. aim to assist and educate lab users in chemical management and promote Green Chemistry, lab energy conservation, solid waste management, as well as in other areas of laboratory operations.

Learn more about Green Labs at Cornell at:

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