Lab Safety: Centrifuges - Hazards and Preventative Maintenance

by Trevor Neve

A centrifuge is an essential part of many laboratories. The key to consistent and reliable performance of your centrifuge is routine checks, cleaning and preventative maintenance.

This guide will ensure your centrifuge produces accurate results and reduces the chances of accident or repair. First, we will focus on identifying hazards. We will also focus on proper use and laboratory policies that can improve safety.

Improper use can result in damage to the equipment resulting in mechanical failure and exposure of hazardous materials to lab personnel. It is important to know that the majority of all centrifuge accidents are due to human error - which means it is possible to prevent them.

As always, start with proper PPE:
 face shield or goggles, gloves, lab coat and closed toed shoes. Long hair should be secured away from moving parts. Centrifuges move at high speeds which pose a risk of physical injury.
They also pose the risk of aerosolizing sample materials in the event of a spill or sample container breakage. Exposure of aerosolized samples could include exposure to biohazardous, chemical or radioactive materials.  Unbalanced rotors and centrifuges pose a hazard as well. It is important to watch for mechanical failure, i.e improper use, corrosion or the rotor, metal fatigue, and mechanical stress.

Follow these tips and procedure for safe use of your centrifuge:

  • Ensure bowls & tubes are dry, spindle is clean.

  • Ensure the rotor is properly seated on the drive shaft, and that you are working on a level and firm surface.

  • Use matched set of tubes, buckets, etc. and ensure tubes are rated for your intended use - speed, temperature and chemical resistance.

  • Inspect your tubes before using, and disinfect the outside of tubes containing biohazardous samples

  • Avoid overfilling as the force of the centrifuge can drive sample liquid up the side of the tube resulting in spills

  • Ensure tubes are properly balanced - this includes filling balancing tubes by mass, not volume if densities of liquids vary. Label tubes.

  • Use safety centrifuge cups to contain spills and prevent aerosolization. Ensure they are attached correctly and free of cracks

  • Only check the O-ring if you have been properly trained to

  • Apply vacuum grease according to the manufacturer's instructions

  • Do not leave the centrifuge until it has reached its full operating speed and appears to be running normally.

  • Pull the plug immediately if it is wobbling, shaking, or making unusual noises

  • Do not bump, jar or move centrifuge while it is spinning

  • Do not exceed rotor's maximum run speed

  • Close the lid during operation

  • Wait for rotor to come to a complete stop before opening lid - for hazardous materials wait at least 10 minutes for any aerosols to settle

  • Only allow qualified service technicians to maintenance your centrifuge

  • Retire rotors after manufacturer's recommended life span - unless an annual stress test demonstrates no structural flaws

Safety starts in the culture of a workplace. Here are some ideas of laboratory policies that can assist your lab in caring for your centrifuge:

Use a centrifuge log and develop a procedure for cleaning
Create a log that includes run dates, speeds, total rotor revolutions, duration, cleaning logs and notes on rotor condition. This allows managers to balance the amount of time each rotor is in use, provides wear and tear data and can help your lab stick to a regular cleaning schedule. Ensure the rotor is cleaned regularly and free of dirt and debris that could lead to damage and accidents. Consult the manufacturer for guidance on cleaning your centrifuge properly. The rotor is the heart of your centrifuge, show it some love.

Procedure for handling hazardous spills:
Create a standardized procedure so that spills are handled in a safe and efficient matter by all lab personnel. The goal is to minimize aerosolization, decontaminate the spill, and remove any contaminated material. Ensure aerosols settle for at least 30 minutes in the event of a spill. Creating this standardized procedure reduces the chances of another incident happening while cleaning.

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