Using Autoclaves Safely

The autoclave is considered to be standard equipment in most scientific laboratories. Its use, first and foremost, is to sterilize lab items and remove any contaminants. This sterilization process is best used at the beginning and end of a project or experiment. At the beginning of a project, glassware and instruments are sterilized to eliminate any contaminants. At the end of a project, the autoclave is used to sterilize any waste by-products and waste containers. Autoclaves sterilize very effectively with pressurized steam at temperatures of about 270 degrees, but this high pressure steam also can be hazardous to the operator of the autoclave. The extremely high temperatures of the autoclave that work so well to sterilize can also cause the autoclave to malfunction without proper care and use. Here are some top tips for using an autoclave safely:

  1. Read the manual:
    While this may seem obvious, it cannot be overemphasized. It is critical to read and completely understand the proper use of the autoclave. Every autoclave has special functions that are unique to its safe operation. Don't assume that just because you have used one kind of autoclave that you can use them all. If there is not a manual available, contact the manufacturer to have one sent to you.
  2. Make it Sterile:
    Of utmost importance in the operation of an autoclave is making sure that items are completely sterilized. Autoclave bags and tapes have a dye that changes color when the right temperature is achieved. However, because the dye is on the outer surface, you can't be 100% certain that the innards are sterile simply by checking for color change. The trick is to insert dye tape attached to a string deep into the package of contents. Attach the string with tape to the outside of the bag and pull the indicator tape out to check. Just make sure you are not opening up infected material to bury the dye tape.
  3. Practice Regular Maintenance:
    Each month, you will want to use some kind of biological indicator to make sure the autoclave is functioning properly. If the dye or the indicator is not working, examine the autoclave for possible problems and re-sterilize. Routine maintenance is the best way to ensure proper function. Age and type of water can determine the maintenance intervals. Plus, be sure to perform any daily or weekly suggested maintenance, as well as ensuring drain strainers are clean before each run.
  4. Autoclave Safety Basics:
    Because autoclaves produce such high heat and pressure, anyone operating an autoclave should be aware of the dangers of these conditions. Lock all doors and gaskets before operation. Most autoclaves have safety interlocks to prevent the release of high-pressure steam, but not all. If yours does not, be very careful. Not all units have adequate heat shields either, so don't touch the autoclave while in operation unless you are certain you will not be burned. The interiors can be dangerously hot as well, so always be sure to wear heat-resistant gloves when removing contents. Do not leave anything flammable near the autoclave. Seek treatment immediately for any burns. While minor burns can be treated via a lab first aid kit, burns to the face or over a large part of the body need emergency medical treatment.
  5. Be Alert to Malfunction Causes:
    Autoclave failure generally has one of two causes: operator error or mechanical breakdown. To avoid breakdown, perform maintenance and confirm sterilization. Operator error can include blocking steam with improper container usage, not adding water before autoclaving a dry load or not setting sufficient time, and using containers or bags that are too large for the autoclave or overfilling bags.

With best practices and good equipment, you can ensure safe and injury-free autoclave use. For affordable, quality autoclaves, visit Absolute Medical.