By: Jim Klenner

Jim Klenner has Master's degrees in Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh and Public Health and Public Administration from West Virginia University. He is a certified and registered Biological Safety Professional.


Jim has served as the Manager of Biological Safety for the Office of Environmental Health and Safety since 2001.

E-mail Jim at:




Ear buds in the Laboratory – Courtesy to Others or Occupational Hazard?

EHS has received several comments from lab managers asking “Are these okay to use? Should we not allow them in the lab?” For the concept of situational awareness it boils down to the following test, If you are standing next to someone using ear buds in a laboratory setting and you administer the test in a normal voice, you should get an affirmative response. If you don’t, that person has failed and you need to take action. Because it boils down to whether someone can hear what he or she needs to hear while using personal audio devices.


I have a personal experience involving the lack of situational awareness. While completing a Biosafety inspection, I asked a technician, who had her back to me, a question three times. I finally tapped her on the shoulder and she pulled out her ear buds to answer. My immediate thought was thank goodness there was not a fire or other emergency which needed her attention.


Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is relentless and permanent and according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) is absolutely preventable. If you can hear music from another person’s ear buds it is likely exceeding the ACGIH threshold limit of 85dB.

Well then, aside from the possibility of progressive hearing loss, should ear buds be allowed in research labs? There are a number of considerations that would be involved to answer this question.

  1. Is the health or safety of the individual compromised by using ear buds? Is the situational awareness affected by their use? Can they hear questions, cries for help, alarms etc.?
  2. If ear buds are permitted, should they be restricted to single ear use?
  3. Are staff and/or students aware of the risks of NIHL?
  4. Do the ear buds fit properly? In a biological or chemical lab what is the opportunity to transfer hazards directly into an ear canal?

There are particular situations that may have an elevated risk assessment limiting or prohibiting the use of ear buds. These include work areas where:

  • Moving/rotating equipment is present. Centrifuges, drills, etc. could entangle ear bud wires resulting in injury.
  • Infectious microorganisms or other biohazardous (BL2 or higher) are present or in use.
  • Toxic or other chemical hazards are present or in use.
  • The reduction of the laboratory situational awareness is considered excessively dangerous.

While presenting Biological Safety Training I typically mention how voice mail should be used in lieu of answering the phone with gloves on. The next person may place a contaminated phone next to their eyes, nose, or mouth and an infectious agent may enter one of those portals of entry. Now consider how often a person may use gloved hands to adjust song order. That potentially contaminated device then goes home with the staff member – possibly taking a biological or chemical hazard out of the lab with them.


With the above considerations, individual supervisors should offer specific approval for individual use; however EHS is of the opinion that ear buds should not be used in research or clinical labs at IUPUI.


Lab Notes is a quarterly publication by the IUPUI Office of Environmental Health and Safety. Lab Notes is designed, edited and published by K. Lee Stone.

"Don't Learn Laboratory Safety by Accident!"