4 questions you need answered about hazardous waste on campus

How to lower the risk of injury and financial fallout from a hazmat accident

Even experienced researchers sometimes make mistakes when working with hazardous materials in labs. Or, despite every precaution, exposure still happens—causing an accident, an illness or even death. In addition, as risk management leaders can attest, such incidents leave an institution vulnerable to fines and lawsuits.

Hazardous waste management and prevention involves training, emergency preparation and knowledge of the substances being used. Campus officials—from facilities administrators to the president—must have answers to these four questions to lower their hazmat risk.

1. Where are hazardous materials located?

While the term “hazardous waste” calls to mind drums of chemicals in a laboratory, or perhaps gasoline tanks in the facilities garages, flammable, corrosive, reactive and toxic substances are found all over campus.

Be on the lookout for more than just chemicals. Toxic or corrosive materials can be found in everything from electronic devices to fluorescent lamps to mercury thermometers, paints and batteries.

Lab safety first

Not sure if your lab safety guidelines fall into best practices? The nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute offers a free digital copy of its laboratory safety guidelines.

2. How can we prevent injuries and accidents?

Proper labeling of all hazardous chemicals is an important first step. Plan to create a room-by-room inventory to identify materials that should be labeled and added to a record.

The inventory process also helps ensure that the chemical containers get inspected and any outdated or unnecessary chemicals get removed.

Compliance comes into play here since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires a chemical inventory as part of a chemical hygiene plan. Access to Safety Data Sheets (SDS), formerly known as MSDS, for all toxic substances is mandated as well. SDS contain detailed information about the properties of each chemical, associated health hazards, and protective measures and precautions required for the safe handling, storage and transportation of each chemical.

Keeping appropriate personal-protective equipment and spill kits close at hand is a big part of accident prevention and cleanup.

Hazardous waste management involves dealing with flammable, corrosive, reactive and toxic substances that can be found all over college campuses.
HAZMATS AMONG US—Flammable, corrosive, reactive and toxic substances can be found all over college campuses.

Everyone on campus—faculty, staff, lab technicians, facilities professionals and students—should receive basic safety training and then more specific training based on the particular compounds or substances being studied. Grounds and maintenance staff must have specialized training as well.

Also, be sure your institution has a campuswide safety manual to standardize procedures for handling hazmat, including disposal policies that comply with federal and state regulations. Each employee should sign a safety agreement that includes repercussions for ignoring the rules. Ensure that the local fire department is informed of the kinds of materials stored on campus.

An active campus safety committee that meets regularly is another best practice.

3. What is the best way to dispose of hazmat?

Larger, research-intensive universities generally have a greater quantity of hazmat on hand, while smaller schools, though they store fewer chemicals, may still have a variety of highly hazardous substances.

Read: Waste watching in higher ed

Disposal policies must comply with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which provides the framework for proper hazardous waste management and best practices for environmental stewardship.

Officials at some institutions coordinate a weekly designated collection time and campus location—enabling a timely, streamlined and safer process. Many higher ed institutions rely on multiple disposal companies to pick up hazmat, with different companies specializing in particular types of substances. In those cases, administrators should work out a set schedule with the providers.

4. How can schools maintain safety while keeping handling and disposal costs down?

A challenge for smaller schools with a variety of hazardous chemicals in smaller volumes is the cost of disposal.

Establishing an annual contract for hazardous waste disposal can control costs. A pickup every three months, for example, can manage drums of waste, with chemical disposal lab packs holding much smaller containers.

Just keep in mind that there’s a financial incentive to combine materials into as few drums as possible.

Unknown chemicals can drive up hazmat removal costs. That’s another reason to avoid unlabeled containers, and to ensure a close-out procedure is in place for when a researcher leaves the institution. Such a procedure requires the researcher to identify all materials and mark them for disposal or redistribution to other labs.

And because disposing of chemicals is often more expensive than purchasing them, be sure to encourage researchers to only order a year’s supply at once.

College and university officials who carefully follow hazmat regulations can reduce the risk of an incident, minimize fines, control costs and improve the overall functioning of campus departments.

Read the full original story on hazardous waste on campus.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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