At a Glance

What it is

Structured process for hazard/risk assessment. The most commonly-used method.

Who's involved

Should include both professionals and technical staff in a collaborative process.

When to use  

Can be used to evaluate processes and/or behaviors.

Training required

No formal training required. Verify users understand the intent of each checklist item.


A checklist attempts to compensate for potential limits of hazard recognition, human memory, and attention to specific details. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task from an individual, within a work group, or across an institution. There are two basic types of checklists: process-based and behavior-based. Sometimes, process- and behavior-based checklists are combined.

Types of Checklists


These address safety hazards associated with a specific, well-defined work task. They establish a set of steps for the checklist user to implement.

To be successful, checklist developers must be able to identify the critical workflow for which the hazard assessment is based. Relevant safety protocols are then established and explicitly integrated into the checklist.


These are designed to assess new or undefined tasks. The “cause-and-effect” concept identifies potential high-hazard, high-risk work practices.

To be successful, checklist developers must have knowledge of the spectrum of hazards and the activities conducted in the category of work area. An appropriate set of hazard assessment criteria are established for evaluation in the checklist.


Checklists don't have to be strictly process-based or behavior-based. Sometimes, a process-based checklist may incorporate behavior-based checks, and vice versa.

Often, a behavior-based checklist may be conducted for a higher-level risk assessment. If activities are then identified as higher risk, a process-based checklist can be developed to mitigate those risks.

Developing a Checklist

Use of checklists tends to come naturally to researchers and safety professionals. Most are comfortable with the checklist concept, and it doesn’t typically take much time to implement and complete a basic safety checklist. A basic checklist asks specific questions that the user confirms upon completion of a task, availability of an item (inventory) or applicability. Most lab managers and senior lab staff should be able to answer these questions with moderate training.

Aspects of a Job Hazard Analysis, What-if Analysis, or Standard Operating Procedures can be incorporated into a more structured checklist to help guide the user in completing a risk assessment and identifying the appropriate exposure control measures.

It is recommended that a principal investigator, laboratory manager, senior laboratory staff member who is familiar with the overall operation of the lab develop the more comprehensive laboratory safety checklists that incorporate risk assessment, such as:


A common expectation—and potential pitfall—of checklists is to limit the scope or assessment to the questions on the list, rather than a holistic hazard analysis for the process being evaluated. So, when developing a checklist, it is critical to define the scope and to understand the audience and checklist user(s).

  • Define Scope and Context
    Depending on the extent and complexity of the scope, a series of smaller, more manageable checklists may need to be developed. Before developing a checklist, determine if the scope is:

        - A full laboratory operations assessment,
        - A defined laboratory process or operation, or
        - A specific chemical hazard.

    The scope helps to determine who to include in the process. I.e., include those familiar with the activities involved in your determined scope.


Use Control Banding to categorize “like” work areas to help define the scope and audience for your behavior-based checklist.


Understanding the audience and checklist user supports knowledgeable collaboration and institutional support.

  • Knowledge Collaboration
    Include both professionals and technicians when developing your checklist. Professionals have the subject matter expertise to identify critical workflows. Technicians have operational experience and may be able to share accident and near-miss details.
  • Institutional Support
    If the checklist users are subordinate to a member of the checklist audience (e.g., a PI or senior laboratory staff member), they will likely be apprehensive in stopping work if the checklist is not completed properly. Institutional support helps to ensure consistency and cooperation, especially for organization-wide initiatives.


Additional hazard assessments (e.g., Job Hazard Analysis, What-if Analysis) may also be required for high-risk activities to identify appropriate control methods.

Checklist for Creating Checklists

Consider the following critical factors to develop an effective checklist.

Content-Related Checks

  • Involve the professionals who do the work (e.g., surgeons, nurses) in creating the checklist
  • Keep the checklist short
    - Five to nine items is the rule of thumb, but the number of items will vary depending on the situation.
    - Paper checklists should fit on one page
  • Identify "Killer Items" - or the steps that are most dangerous to skip.
  • Use simple, exact wording and language that is familiar to team members.
  • Include communication checks at important junctures for team members to share their problem-solving expertise.
  • Ensure the checklist is easy to read (e.g., use sans serif type, use both upper- and lower-case text, etc.).

Procedure-Related Checks

  • Do you want to implement a "Do-Confirm" checklist (i.e., first complete the tasks, then pause to run the checklist), or a "Read-Do" checklist (i.e., read the checklist item by item while completing the tasks)?
  • Set up a clear procedure for when to use the checklist.
  • Authorize a specific team member to kick off the checklist and ensure the team completes it.
  • As necessary, identify clear "pause points" (times when the team must pause to complete specific sections of the checklist).
  • Test the checklist in a real-world environment. Revise as needed.

Source: Gawande, A. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right; Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company LLC: New York; 2009.


  • Most people know what a checklist is.
  • A “finite” list of questions or assessment categories helps laboratory users more familiar with laboratory operations assess and implement specific safe work practices.
  •  A standardized checklist allows institutions to compare and contrast various laboratories and operations to identify high risk operations and allocate resources.
  • Ability to quantify risk and provide scalability across an organization.


  • Appropriate staffing and resources are needed to initially develop the checklist.
  • Scope or assessment is limited to the specific questions listed rather than a holistic hazard analysis for the process being evaluated.
  • Oversimplifying the scale and severity of a hazard. (In an effort to address this, many checklists incorporate Severity of Consequences and the Probability of Occurrence ratings.)

This collection of methods and tools for assessing hazards in research laboratories is based on the publication, Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories [PDF]. The guide was published in 2015 by the Hazard Identification and Evaluation Task Force of the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Chemical Safety in response to a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

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