‘One major incident away’

Academia and industry respond to call for more attention to lab safety

  • CSB cited insufficient safety oversight at Texas Tech, as well as lack of regulation and good practice through academia.
  • Successful safety programs are integrated into daily operations.
  • Although some experts advocate more stringent disciplinary policies in academia, that approach may not be appropriate for students.
  • Commitment to safety should extend from university leadership into the classroom.  

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

The Chemical Safety Board normally investigates industrial incidents, but last year, the agency turned its attention to academia.

In a recently released case study that examined a January 2010 laboratory explosion at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, CSB expressed concern about inadequate safety practices at the school and called on other academic institutions to evaluate their own safety policies and protocols for research labs.

CSB’s concern about safety in academia lines up with Kenneth Fivizzani’s experience as a research scientist at Nalco Co. Before retiring from the Naperville, IL-based sustainability company in 2009, Fivizzani spent several years ensuring the safety of its research labs. 

“When new employees come in, they often are startled by how much emphasis [the] industry puts on safety because, in their academic experience, they didn’t have that kind of emphasis usually,” he said.

CSB’s report serves as a warning to both the academic community and private employers who one day may be employing these students.

‘Combination of issues’

A range of activities occurs in labs, from basic science, chemistry and biology experiments to research involving nanotechnology or radioactive materials.

At Texas Tech, a fifth-year graduate student and a first-year graduate student were working with an energetic compound for a project funded by the Department of Homeland Security. According to CSB’s report, issued in October 2011, the fifth-year graduate student was using a pestle to break up clumps in the compound when it detonated. The student, who had removed his safety goggles, lost three fingers and suffered burns and eye damage.

CSB found that a number of things went wrong, including:
  • The students had decided to scale up production of the compound without consulting the principal investigators and mistakenly believed that wetting the compound would prevent an explosion.
  • The principal investigators verbally set a production limit for the compound but failed to communicate the safety restrictions to all students.
  • Previous lab incidents were not always documented and preventive lessons were missed.

In CSB’s view, the principal investigators, the Texas Tech chemistry department and university administration shared blame for insufficient safety oversight. DHS also missed “an opportunity for safety influence” by not establishing specific safety provisions for the research, CSB said.

When Fivizzani read the Texas Tech report (.pdf file), he was amazed at the student’s behavior because it indicated that critical training was lacking. CSB said the student had not previously worked with energetic compounds and did not receive formal training at Texas Tech; he instead completed his own literature review.

Fivizzani stressed the importance of training, especially for graduate and postdoctoral students in highly specialized areas of chemistry. “They’re not doing experiments out of a book; they’re doing investigational research, which by its very definition [is] new, nobody has done it. But there still needs to be some procedures, and somewhere in the process, these researchers have to get some kind of training specific to the type of research they’re in,” he said.

Lawrence M. Gibbs, associate vice provost for environmental, health and safety at Stanford University, said the CSB case study shows that several systems have to work together to ensure lab safety. “When something does occur, the system somehow has failed,” he said. “And there’s no way to say the failure’s based on one specific issue. It’s usually a combination of issues.”

A major issue identified by CSB was the lack of regulation and good-practice guidance in academia compared to industry. In the case study, CSB advised OSHA to explain that its lab standard (1910.1450) covers health hazards of chemicals, but institutions also need to address physical hazards. CSB also recommended that the American Chemical Society develop best practice guidance for assessing and controlling hazards in research labs.

Students fall under OSHA jurisdiction only if they work for the university. So, for example, OSHA was unable to issue citations in the April 2011 death of an undergraduate student at Yale University in New Haven, CT, whose hair was caught in a spinning lathe in a lab machine shop. The agency did investigate, however, and found that the student was permitted to work alone in the machine shop. No physical guarding or machine stops were on the machine. Yale disputed OSHA’s findings.

Industry comparison

Although he believes both academia and industry share a concern for safety, Gibbs described several differences between the two settings that may affect safety programs.

Businesses are more hierarchal, with clearer lines of responsibility and prescriptive compliance approaches, he said. Generally, company research is funded centrally, whereas principal investigators at universities generate their own research funding. A university such as Stanford may have 700 principal investigators, which Gibbs likened to 700 small businesses running their own lab program.

Fivizzani noted that businesses usually lay out a clear path of safety training and carefully document employee participation. Safety also is considered part of the overall job performance, so non-compliance can result in termination.

The relationship between safety and job performance is a key area where academic institutions can learn from industry, said James Kaufman, president and CEO of the Natick, MA-based Lab Safety Institute.

“I feel there’s a missing element in academia,” he said. “And until this element is present, the programs are really never going to be as good as they could be, and it’s more commonly found in industry. It’s a very simple principle that working safely must be a condition of employment.”

Principal investigators who do not comply with safety rules should face discipline regardless of their credentials or prestige, Kaufman said. “At some point, if you don’t enforce the rules, you don’t have rules.”

Kaufman cited two examples he observed in industry. One company had signs every 25 feet warning employees that smoking in the facility would lead to immediate termination, and another company fired employees if they were caught three times without eye protection.

Bruce Backus, assistant vice chancellor of environmental, health and safety at Washington University in St. Louis, said such a hard-line approach is not typical in academia and would have to be discussed before being applied to students.

Safety errors can serve as teachable moments. Backus, who is president of the Bloomington, IN-based Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association, used the example of a postdoctoral student who was pouring nitric acid into a beaker and wearing the correct personal protective equipment – except his safety goggles were on his forehead. When Backus pointed out the lapse, the student explained that he had lifted his goggles because he was sweating and forgot to put them back over his eyes.

“So for him, it was a good reminder,” Backus said. “Whenever I walked by the lab again, he always had the proper eye protection. But it’s that constant vigilance and having to always make sure first thing you put on that safety equipment.”

Balancing support and compliance

Lesson learned
On Dec. 29, 2008, a staff research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles, was working ... 

Shortly before CSB released its Texas Tech report, OSHA published (.pdf file) new lab safety educational materials covering exposure to chemical, biological and physical hazards.

The agency also is working with the National Academies to develop lab safety resources.

Kathryn Hughes, program officer with the National Academies’ Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, called safety culture “critical” to lab safety. “You can have all the training in the world, but that has to be reinforced by the culture that exists at a given facility, and that is something that has to be in place at all levels of an institution,” she said.

At Stanford, the commitment to safety filters from the top all the way down, Gibbs said. He and his top safety officers have stop-work authority and report directly to university administrators.

The research culture at labs sometimes conflicts with the compliance focus of safety and health. However, the approach at Stanford involves integrating the safety program and procedures into daily laboratory operations rather than keeping safety separate from lab work. “There’s really a balance of activities between providing technical support, auditing and compliance management on behalf of the institution,” Gibbs said. “It’s a really critical balance to have.”

He drew a distinction between providing compliance and audit assistance and going in with an attitude toward auditing. The latter “almost immediately, in my mind, sets up some form of a confrontational system as opposed to ‘We’re here to assist you with your responsibilities,’” Gibbs said.

Although CSB’s emphasis is on academia now, Gibbs pointed out that working with hazardous materials is inherently risky, whether the lab is located at a university, government facility or private company. “I would say most research organizations … are always one major incident away from a catastrophe,” he said, “and that’s why continued vigilance and attention to safety on everybody’s part is so important.”  

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