Ensuring the safe use of chemical products such as formalin in community-based physician offices

There are a number of chemical products routinely used in community-based physician offices such as detergents, disinfectants, and pharmaceutical products. While most of these chemical products can be safely used if the manufacturer’s instructions for use (MIFU) are followed, all employers have the responsibility to ensure their employees are educated on the safe use of chemicals.

One chemical product, formalin (a liquid form of formaldehyde), is commonly used in community-based physician offices to preserve tissue samples after they have been collected.

Studies show that both short-term and long-term exposure to formalin has health effects. Exposure risks occur even before a person can smell formalin (less than 0.5 to 1.0 ppm). Additionally, because formalin vapours are slightly heavier than air, there is potential asphyxiation risk in poorly ventilated, enclosed or low-lying areas. In the process of preserving tissue samples, formalin may splash on the skin where it can be absorbed or its vapours inhaled.

Any physician who uses formalin should have access to a copy of the manufacturer’s material safety data sheet (MSDS). The MSDS provides product information on its toxicity, flammability, spill management and personal protective equipment requirements. It can be obtained online, or from the laboratory or pharmacy that supplied the product.

For more information on chemical safety in medical offices contact WorkSafeBC, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, or Government of Canada for a Guide to the management of hazardous substances.


  1. WorkSafeBC. Formaldehyde [Internet]. Richmond, BC: WorkSafeBC; [cited 2019 Nov 19]; [about 4 screens]. Available from: https://www.worksafebc.com/en/health-safety/hazards-exposures/formaldehyde