By: Susan Voight

Susan Voight has Master’s degree in applied communication from IUPUI, with a concentration in Health Communication. Susan serves as a training system analyst within IUPUI’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety.


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The Dangers of Clutter

At IUPUI, research is valued and supported. Laboratories are buzzing with activities in pursuit of important discoveries. However, with so much research activity, laboratory space can become a little cramped. Unless adequate care is given to maintain organization and tidiness, a cluttered laboratory can rapidly develop. Clutter, as seen in the above photograph, often transpires into a workplace hazard. Therefore, we must be aware of the dangers that clutter may cause within a research laboratory and take proper steps to avoid a disorganized and messy work environment.


What is meant by the word "clutter"? provides this definition: "to fill or litter with things in a disorderly manner". Basically, for context within a laboratory it means too much stuff, or failure to put away your stuff after use. Too many bottles, specimens, and personal items can quickly cause disorganization in a work area. For example, it is difficult to work effectively within a fume hood if there are too many chemical bottles to allow for free hand movement at a depth that insures fume containment. Another example of the effect of clutter was provided in an early study on workplace hazard communication in which the warning signs within a laboratory went unnoticed because of distraction caused by clutter. Within IUPUI laboratories signage marks important emergency response locations such as eye wash stations, emergency showers, fire extinguishers and alarm pulls. It should not be assumed that laboratory staff is familiar with the emergency stations. Signage should always be visible so that anyone may quickly locate these emergency response tools. Area around signage and emergency equipment should remain uncluttered so that signage may be noticed and the emergency equipment may be unobstructed.


The Environmental Health and Safety staff confirms that messy, cluttered laboratories are often found to result in emergency response activities. Lee Stone, Laboratory Safety Manager for the IUPUI campus said, "There is often a correlation between cluttered laboratories and the occurrence of spills or accidents. Attempt to maximize laboratory usage is understandable, but sometimes this causes crowding that can be unsafe." Often laboratories with too many chemical containers report a hazardous material spill requiring professional cleanup. Slips, trips or falls are an equally dangerous result of a messy work environment. During inspections, the laboratory inspection staff will provide suggestions for uncluttering laboratory space. For example, researchers are advised that chemicals that are no longer needed should be properly discarded as soon as feasible.


Another symptom of overcrowded laboratories is storage of laboratory materials or equipment in inappropriate areas such as corridors. This practice presents safety concerns. Adequate space to allow for emergency evacuation is crucial to the safety of IUPUI faculty, staff and students. Indiana Fire Code prohibits storage of hazardous materials in egress routes. The Campus Safety Committee has recently evaluated a proposal for a Campus Corridor Use Policy. This proposal has been endorsed by a majority of Committee members. The policy provides clear definitions for proper use of building corridor, hallway and stairway space. Practices to maintain unobstructed emergency evacuation routes, or emergency response entry ways are included in this policy. The evaluation of the policy continues to move through the appropriate channels. In anticipation of the policy enactment, please evaluate the corridor space in your laboratory area. Remove any laboratory materials or equipment that might be temporarily stored there.


Keeping clutter in check is a constant activity. Stay mindful of the items in your space. Consider if the items present can be placed away from where you are working. Have a system to store laboratory materials in a proper location. Identify an appropriate space to store your personal items outside of the laboratory. Then, adhere to the practice of putting things in their proper place. Allow yourself the most clutter-free workspace possible. A tidy workplace, free from unnecessary distractions will help maintain your focus on your work and help to promote a safe, healthy work environment.


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!"