Staff at risk in hazardous labs

May 28, 2004

University laboratory technicians are being driven from their jobs by allergic reactions to research animals, latex gloves and a variety of substances.

One in nine academic departments identified in a health and safety survey by the union Amicus as dealing with such substances reported technicians having to either leave or change roles as a result of developing allergies.

The research, carried out in collaboration with The Times Higher , highlights work-related stress and upper-limb disorders as potential risks that many staff feel poorly protected against.

This contrasts with greater levels of confidence over more widely recognised threats, including chemical, biological, radioactive and electrical hazards.

The report into health and safety standards in UK laboratories is based on a survey of 1,291 Amicus workplace representatives in university, National Health Service and private sector labs. Just over 10 per cent of the surveys sent to universities were returned.

The report notes that while most laboratory staff take health and safety issues very seriously, there are exceptions.

"Anyone who has worked in a lab will have seen examples of dedicated scientists or technicians who regularly put themselves at risk," it says.

The survey suggests that work-related allergies pose a significant health risk for a section of the lab workforce, principally technicians.

Yet fewer than one in three respondents said their departments had an annual surveillance scheme to check the health of staff handling potential allergens. One in ten felt they were not given adequate training to safely deal with such materials and felt safety measures were inadequate.

Between 1,500 and 3,000 new cases of occupational asthma, prompted by a reaction to materials breathed in at work, are reported each year, while 3,900 cases of work-related skin disease emerge as a result of exposure to allergenic substances. Such materials can include proteins from animal fur and urine as well as powder from latex gloves.

"Training in how to deal with the wide range of potential allergens found in a lab setting... is vital to minimise the risks to those involved," the report says.

"Allergies are not a trivial matter, and for each of those individuals affected, the consequences are likely to be profound."

The survey found that stress was the most frequent cause of serious work-related ill health among lab workers. Eight people were reported to have left their university jobs because of it.

Upper-limb disorders caused by repetitive movements also posed a significant hazard.

The report suggests that the Health and Safety Executive step up surveillance and enforcement of appropriate actions.

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