Hazard summary

This alert is to raise awareness about the potential for serious injuries that could result from the unsafe storage and disposal of old laboratory samples with unknown or unidentified chemicals.


In 2013 an explosion occurred at an environmental science facility while workers were discarding old biological samples into a box for disposal. One worker was injured from flying shards of glass and the shock waves from the explosion and another suffered temporary hearing loss.

During the fire investigation it was determined that the facility stored biological samples collected in the 1960s and 1970s. There were also samples brought in from another facility (a museum) that dated back to the 1920s.

The biological samples had been stored in a preservative in glass vials or jars, many of which were not labelled. Over time, the preservative had evaporated resulting in samples that were unstable and could explode on impact. It is believed that some of the samples at the facility had been stored in formalin or isopropanol, others may have been stored in picric acid, which is very volatile and explosive when it dries to a crystal state. Picric acid can also react with common metals to form picrates or salts that are shock sensitive. These salts could form if, for example, the sample is stored in a glass jar with a metal lid.

Hazard location

This alert applies to workplaces where similar laboratory samples may be stored in educational, healthcare or research facilities such as schools, universities, colleges, hospitals, museums and any other workplace.

Legal requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations

  • Sections 25 to 28 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) set out the roles and responsibilities of employers, supervisors and workers with respect to workplace health and safety. Many of these requirements would apply when workers are required to handle, store and dispose of old laboratory samples.
  • Clause 25(2)(h) of the OHSA requires that an employer take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect a worker. Reasonable precautions could include the identification of and assessment of any old stored samples that may pose a hazard. They could also include the development and implementation of safe work procedures and provision of adequate personal protective equipment for the disposal of identified samples.
  • Clause 25(2)(d) of the OHSA requires an employer to acquaint a worker or person in authority over a worker with the hazards in the handling, storage, disposal and transport of any article, biological or chemical agent.
  • Clause 25(2)(a) of the OHSA requires an employer to provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health and safety of a worker.
  • Sections 14 to 16 of Ontario Regulation 860 (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, or WHMIS) may apply to the laboratory sample.
  • Ontario Regulation 833 (Control of Exposure to Biological and Chemical Agents) may apply to the laboratory sample.
  • If the laboratory sample is used or stored in a workplace to which the Industrial Establishments Regulation applies, (Ontario Regulation 851), then the relevant sections of that regulation would also apply, including but not limited to:
    • Section 124, which requires an eye wash station and Section 125, which requires that a quick-acting deluge shower be provided, where the worker could have potential injury to the eye or skin from exposure.
    • Section 126 requires removal of material to be done in such a way as not to cause a hazard.
    • Section 130 requires a worker who may be exposed to an agent that poses a health and safety hazard to be trained to use the precautions and procedures to be followed in the handling, use and storage of the agent; in the proper use and care of required personal protective equipment; and in the proper use of emergency measures and procedures.
  • If the laboratory sample is used or stored in a workplace to which the Health Care and Residential Facilities Regulation (Ontario Regulation 67/93) applies - for example, in a hospital - then the relevant sections of that regulation would also apply, including but not limited to:
    • Sections 8 and 9, requiring that measures and procedures be developed, established and put into effect for the health and safety of workers in consultation with the Joint Health and Safety Committee or Health and Safety Representative, if any.
    • Sections 98 to 101 and 103 to 107 set out the safety requirements for dispensing, transporting, handling, storing and containing flammable and other hazardous liquids.
    • Section 112 requires waste materials to be removed from work areas in a building as often as is necessary to protect the health and safety of workers and section 115 sets out the requirements for the safe storage of liquid hazardous waste.

This resource does not replace the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and its regulations and should not be used as or considered legal advice. Health and safety inspectors apply and enforce these laws based on the facts they find in the workplace.