Lab Safety Series: Vacuum Pump Safety

by Trevor Neve

Vacuum pumps are commonly used in labs for a variety of applications. They can pose several health and safety risks to operators and those in the lab - so it is important to properly maintenance your piece of equipment and to take proper safety precautions. With improper care, the performance of a vacuum pump can degrade, making it less efficient while also posing safety risks to those around it.

Before you start:

  • Always wear proper PPE - such as a lab coat, gloves, and safety glasses appropriate for your use.

  • It is important to check the oil levels regularly, and to keep maintenance records that include oil change dates.

  • Do not place a vacuum pump in an enclosed, unventilated cabinet where heat and exhaust can build up.

  • Ensure pump has belt guards in place to prevent anything from being caught in the belt, and ensure electrical cords and switches are in good condition.

Set-up of your operation is important, and you'll want to keep these tips in mind:

  • Do not operate near flammable chemicals, their wastes or combustible materials.

  • If the pump uses oil, you must use a drip pan to catch any oil drips. Used oil is hazardous waste - it is important to replace oil and properly dispose of oil contaminated with condensate. Leaking or spilled oil is a slip hazard.

  • Ensure you use correct vacuum tubing with thick walls, and replace any old or crumbly tubing as it can degrade performance. Use the shortest length of tubing required to reach where needed.

  • Conduct all operations behind a table shield or in a fume hood.

  • All glass must be strong enough to withstand the vacuum pressure differential, and free of chips and cracks. You can wrap glass with tape and enclose the vacuum trap inside a rigid container to minimize the safety risk of a glassware explosion.

For Chemical applications:

  • Do not use solvents which may damage the pump.

  • Always close the valve between the vacuum vessel and the pump before shutting off the pump to avoid sucking oil into the system.

  • Many vapors condense in the pump oil - solvents in oil degrade performance and ruin the pump over time. Solvents in the oil also create a chemical hazard when the oil is changed and are emitted in an oil mist vented from the system.                                           

                        To avoid these problems:

  • Trap evaporated materials with a cold trap. Depending on the material to be trapped, use a filtration flask at room temperature or placed in an ice bath.

  • For more volatile solvents, more complex options such as a dry ice trap can be used.

For Biological applications:

  • Use a liquid trap with an appropriate disinfectant, labelled with the disinfectant used and the hazards it could pose.

  • Use a second over flow trap for extra protection.


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