In addition to the safety risks common to most everyday workplaces such as electrical and fire hazards, a cell culture laboratory has a number of specific hazards associated with handling and manipulating human or animal cells and tissues, as well as toxic, corrosive, or mutagenic solvents and reagents.  Common hazards are accidental punctures with syringe needles or other contaminated sharps, spills and splashes onto skin and mucous membranes, ingestion through mouth pipetting, and inhalation exposures to infectious aerosols.

The fundamental objective of any biosafety program is to reduce or eliminate exposure of laboratory workers and the outside environment to potentially harmful biological agents.  The most important element of safety in a cell culture laboratory is the strict adherence to standard microbiological practices and techniques.

Review the Guidelines for Safe Laboratory Practices

Biosafety Levels

The regulations and recommendations for biosafety in the United States are contained in the document Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories, prepared by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The document defines four ascending levels of containment, referred to as biosafety levels 1 through 4, and describes the microbiological practices, safety equipment, and facility safeguards for the corresponding level of risk associated with handling a particular agent.

Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1)

BSL-1 is the basic level of protection common to most research and clinical laboratories, and is appropriate for agents that are not known to cause disease in normal, healthy humans.
Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2)

BSL-2 is appropriate for moderate-risk agents known to cause human disease of varying severity by ingestion or through percutaneous or mucous membrane exposure.  Most cell culture labs should be at least BSL-2, but the exact requirements depend upon the cell line used and the type of work conducted
Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3)

BSL-3 is appropriate for indigenous or exotic agents with a known potential for aerosol transmission, and for agents that may cause serious and potentially lethal infections.
Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4)

BSL-4 is appropriate for exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease by infectious aerosols and for which no treatment is available.  These agents are restricted to high containment laboratories.

Safety Data Sheet (SDS)

Safety Data Sheet (SDS), also referred to as Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), is a form containing information regarding the properties of a particular substance.  The SDS includes physical data such as melting point, boiling point, and flash point, information on the substance’s toxicity, reactivity, health effects, storage, and disposal, as well as recommended protective equipment and procedures for handling spills.  

The SDSs for all Life Technologies products are available at www.lifetechnologies.com/sds

Safety Equipment

Safety equipment in a cell culture laboratory includes primary barriers such as biosafety cabinets, enclosed containers, and other engineering controls designed to remove or minimize exposure to hazardous materials, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) that is often used in conjunction with the primary barriers.  The biosafety cabinet (i.e., cell culture hood) is the most important equipment to provide containment of infectious splashes or aerosols generated by many microbiological procedures as well as to prevent contamination of your own cell culture.  For more information, see Cell Culture Hood.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment (PPE) form an immediate barrier between the personnel and the hazardous agent, and they include items for personal protection such as gloves, laboratory coats and gowns, shoe covers, boots, respirators, face shields, safety glasses, or goggles.  They are often used in combination with biosafety cabinets and other devices that contain the agents or materials being handled.

We recommend that you consult your institution’s guidelines for the appropriate use of PPE in your laboratory.