Lesson learned

On Dec. 29, 2008, a staff research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles, was working with a syringe containing t-butyl lithium, a highly flammable compound that ignites on contact with air. The plunger on the syringe somehow became dislodged and the chemical ignited, setting the assistant’s synthetic sweater on fire. She died about two weeks later.

According to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the assistant was not wearing a lab coat, which was a key factor in the severity of her burns. In the wake of her death and more than $30,000 in Cal/OSHA fines, UCLA made major changes, including strengthening its inspection program and personal protective equipment policy. The university also started the UC Center for Lab Safety to promote research and best practices to improve lab safety.

James Gibson, executive director of the center, said inspectors now are required to provide reports the day after an inspection is completed so the lab can make immediate improvements.

Nancy Wayne, associate vice chancellor for research for laboratory safety and a professor of physiology at UCLA, said the majority of faculty and research staff “totally understand” the increased level of inspections.

“The inspection process is not just about inspections; it’s also an educational process,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the researchers to learn from the safety inspectors how best to store chemicals, what’s the best PPE. Although you can get that information online, it sometimes makes a bigger impact when you’re talking about it with someone who’s an expert in lab safety.”

Wayne was impressed with how quickly faculty and students adjusted to new PPE policies. With the warm climate and laid-back culture in Southern California, people were accustomed to coming into labs wearing flip-flops and shorts, but there “was an almost instantaneous change to long pants and closed-toe shoes,” she said.

To ensure consistency among the 3,500 labs on campus, everyone – including principal investigators and lab managers – is required to take a lab safety course. Wayne said the requirement even applies to the chancellor, who also is a principal investigator of a lab.

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