Safety culture Educational

Improving academic lab safety

Guidance focuses on safety education, incident reporting

lab safety

Key points

  • A report from the National Research Council states that five major groups at universities need to be involved in lab safety and creating a safety culture.
  • The American Chemical Society is working on safety education guidelines, looking into a centralized reporting system for incidents and finalizing guidance on identifying hazards.
  • ACS also wants academic institutions’ undergraduate chemistry departments to have a committee that promotes safety culture.

Additional resources

More than five years ago, a Texas Tech University graduate student lost three fingers and suffered burns and eye damage when a metal compound detonated during a laboratory project.

Meanwhile, the University of California, Los Angeles, has spent $20 million on lab safety following the death of a staff researcher in a lab fire in 2008. The researcher was not wearing a protective lab coat when the plunger on a syringe she was using dislodged, discharging a chemical compound that burns when exposed to air. She suffered serious burns and died nearly three weeks later.

These incidents illustrate some of the hazards of lab work. Others listed by OSHA, in addition to dangerous chemicals, include bloodborne pathogens, radiation, and musculoskeletal stress.

Chemical Safety Board investigator Mary Beth Mulcahy said laboratories need to become safer, but cited complications such as difficulty collecting information about incidents from the wide range of schools, companies and organizations that use labs; lack of safety as a performance requirement for lab workers; and lack of safety education at schools.

“The ultimate goal is awareness and a belief that an incident can happen to anyone at any time,” Mulcahy said. “That preoccupation will do the best job of keeping people safe. In labs, we’re walking into hazardous situations. We can educate people to proactively take control of those hazards and not blindly walk in and assume no risk.”

The Washington-based American Chemical Society is working to improve safety guidance for academic institutions in particular by developing safety education guidelines, finalizing guidance on identifying hazards in research labs, and examining the possibility of a central reporting system for schools and companies to anonymously input incidents.

“Overall, [companies] emphasize safety way more than academic institutions do, but they have a vested reason for doing that,” said Robert H. Hill, chair of the ACS chemical safety committee. “If they do things that are unsafe, it hurts their business, it hurts their pocketbook. They’re concerned about their employees, but also the bottom line. They learned long ago, if you don’t do things safely, you can pay in a big way. Companies can go out of business and face legal ramifications if they don’t take care of safety.”

Ongoing projects

Schools can be private or public, they might fall under OSHA regulations, and they might have full-time safety and health personnel. Yet, no centralized location exists for universities to report incidents and disseminate information on lab safety, Mulcahy said.

Hill agreed that a central reporting system is “a big need.” A National Research Council report released in July 2014 recommended that ACS, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Council on Education collaborate on a “lessons learned” and near-misses database.

Hill said he spoke to the ACS board of directors in December about the prospect. Institutions are sometimes wary of reporting incidents and near misses due to concerns about legal ramifications and media coverage, he said, but they could report incidents anonymously to a neutral body.

NRC stated in its report that academic institutions should identify and mitigate hazards, and one way to do that is through reporting near misses, which often are quashed or misrepresented. Hill said the biggest challenge is encouraging institutions to use near-miss data.

H. Holden Thorp, provost and distinguished professor of chemistry and medicine at Washington University, St. Louis, and chair of the committee that wrote the NRC report, said few labs report near misses. His university has a reporting system, but it is not used as often as it should be.

“A lot of incidents that occur, you find out after the fact there are other people who tried to run the same reaction,” Thorp said. “They may have seen something concerning, but nobody knew about it.”

Another crucial issue is safety education, which differs from safety training by focusing on “why” hazards are dangerous, while training states what the hazards are and what users need to do, Hill said.

“If people understand the ‘why’ behind things, they’re more likely to do what they need to do,” he added.

ACS has formed a task force to produce safety education guidelines.

Additionally, CSB recommended that ACS develop risk assessment guidance in light of the Texas Tech incident. A final version of the guide, Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories, was published after Safety+Health went to press.

Safety culture

The NRC report emphasizes that all levels at universities should support a safety culture in chemical research labs. A safety culture means lab workers know they are in a potentially hazardous environment and they communicate about hazards, and safety officials are regarded as collaborators with researchers, Thorp said.

The report names five groups and their duties for advocating safety culture:

  • Presidents, chancellors and provosts should have a risk management plan and communicate often about safety while urging others to do the same. They also can show a commitment to safety by paying for personal protective equipment and hazardous waste removal.
  • Vice presidents for research and deans should ensure their schools only conduct research that can be performed safely.
  • Principal investigators and department chairs should establish safety practices and wear PPE, ensure researchers are properly trained, and encourage continuous discussion about safety.
  • Researchers can be leaders by serving on safety committees and participating in inspections of other labs.
  • Environmental, health and safety staff should support administrators, professors and researchers and work to “go beyond compliance.”

In Undergraduate Professional Education in Chemistry, a report released this spring, ACS calls for chemistry departments to promote a safety culture by conducting inspections, analyzing incident reports and ensuring all lab workers are educated on safety.

“It’s really critical for everyone to recognize from the top of the organization all the way to the bench, there’s responsibility people have for laboratory safety,” Thorp said. “It’s how they design buildings. It’s how you craft your policies. It’s how you promote collaboration with your EH&S people. It’s what you tell new faculty you hire what they’re responsible for. It’s the way you train graduate students. It’s the resources you provide, how you dispose of chemical waste. These are all institutional responsibilities.”

Other progress

Other industries provide insight into how academic lab safety can be improved, according to the NRC report. The aviation industry has a near-miss reporting system, and workers in the health care industry are empowered to communicate about safety, Thorp said.

Mulcahy would like to see academic institutions include safety in worker performance requirements. In its 2012 report “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions,” ACS recommended that schools include safety duties in workers’ job descriptions and performance plans.

“One of the phrases we use at CSB is: ‘What gets measured gets done,’” Mulcahy said. “If you have to have publications or bring in grant money or do outreach, and that’s a requirement to progress, then you’re probably going to focus on those.

“We know at TTU and from other universities, [safety is] not a specific performance requirement. That’s something the CSB has called out, not just in academic but also other industrial accidents. Safety is not being called out as being an important factor to judge somebody’s performance.”

Still, Thorp sees progress. Academic labs are improving their safety, as young researchers are more aware, young faculty place higher priority on safety and lab designs are becoming more secure, he said. Desks are being separated from labs, and fume hoods and paraflow are more effective, he noted.

“All of us need to be continuously reiterating [safety], stressing the importance to new faculty and new graduate students,” Thorp said. “It’s going to take a long time to change the culture, but I believe we’re well on our way.”

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