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Safety First in School Laboratories

Safety First in School Laboratories

Accidents in academic research laboratories can expose inadequate safety practices at colleges and universities.

The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is a central tenet of the education process. But in academic research laboratories, where simple mistakes can lead to disaster, university officials don’t have the option of approaching lab safety as a "lesson-learned" exercise. To protect student researchers and reduce institutional risk, safety professionals, lab managers and principal investigators (PIs) must ensure their laboratories comply with an intricate matrix of health and safety regulations. Moreover, to effect lasting change, they have to depend on university leaders to impose a strong safety culture from the top down and ensure it is instilled in every researcher.

Education institutions face multiple variables in laboratory settings and an increasing number of regulations governing every facet of research. Ensuring compliance is complicated and laborious. Equally difficult is improving the safety culture ingrained in laboratory environments. Through improved understanding of researcher attitudes toward safety processes, institutions can develop programs that protect their researchers more effectively without impeding their work.

Leading by Example

Research laboratories can be dangerous places under the best conditions and supervision. They are home to a range of hazardous chemicals, biological agents, radioactive materials, animals, sophisticated equipment and machinery, any of which can cause serious injury if mishandled. Intensifying the inherent dangers are personnel priorities: PIs are under enormous pressure to teach and supervise researchers, obtain funding and publish findings. Meanwhile, their researchers—undergrad and grad students, post-docs, technicians and visiting scientists—are hyper-focused on conducting experiments for coursework, degree programs, thesis development and grant-funded projects. When researchers are immersed in their work, safety isn’t always their main priority. In fact, they often consider safety and compliance unnecessary hindrances that take time away from their research.

Academic laboratories face additional personnel challenges that industry labs don’t. Alarge number of students are working in academic labs, anywhere from 10 to 60-plus hours a week, and that population is turning over continually because of graduation and new arrivals. Because young researchers are inexperienced, they are more likely to make mistakes, cause accidents and get hurt. It is up to senior research staff to protect student researchers by fostering a strong safety culture.

The problem is that at all education levels, there’s a long history of inadequate attention paid to lab safety. Senior researchers were raised in that environment, too, so they can’t be expected to lead by example if they themselves don’t understand the need to prioritize safety. Making laboratories safer requires that senior researchers adopt a non-negotiable attitude toward safety and instill that attitude in every researcher that walks into their labs. But to get senior lab members onboard, the industry has to make safety training and compliance tasks easier to manage. This requires that institutions not only impose a safety culture from the highest levels, but also support labs by providing them the tools needed to simplify compliance management.

Making Compliance easier

Existing safety and compliance management methods do not support the need for academic lab safety professionals to track, cross-check and prove compliance for an ever-changing research student population across a complex matrix of materials, animal types, equipment and instrumentation. A number of highly publicized accidents at U.S. universities in recent years—some resulting in fatalities—have highlighted the urgent need to improve safety. Agencies continue to introduce new regulations to cover every facet of health, safety and security, and they’re increasingly putting teeth into them by cracking down on offenders through hefty fines, pulled funding and even criminal charges.

However, it’s extremely difficult for senior lab members to ensure that students are approaching experiments safely when they are spending so much time trying to ensure compliance. Today, most institutions still rely on manual, paper-based processes or on data stored in multiple databases, which can’t provide a unified view into compliance status. Senior lab members, while managing their own work, are expected to remind student researchers about safety and compliance requirements, but with no cohesive view into the entire lab ecosystem, their ability to discover gaps can be inconsistent, insufficient and last-minute.

Further, many compliance programs put the burden of tracking training requirements, documenting progress and meeting standards on researchers themselves. Even if institutions have the resources to hire compliance teams to oversee processes, researchers still are responsible for completing their own training and other tasks. Such disjointed methods confuse researchers and contribute to a lax safety culture.

Ongoing accidents and stronger regulatory enforcement have delivered a wakeup call: Academic institutions have to step up efforts to make their laboratories safer. University executives must support labs in developing sustainable programs that protect everyone.

Deploying systems that incorporate integrated modules addressing each facet of lab operations breaks compliance into manageable pieces while creating a unified view of tasks and records for lab personnel. The most cost-effective options today are secure Web server-based applications accessible through standard browsers so administrators and researchers can log in whether working on- or off-site. Systems that enable safety professionals to view reports and set automated alerts for compliance requirements provide lead time for meeting deadlines, eliminating the confusion and stress that often characterize operations.

To create efficient safety and compliance programs, stakeholder teams should map and automate effective workflows, set administration permissions and establish accounts for every researcher associated with each laboratory. This enables student and other researchers to easily review their compliance status, which ultimately strengthens their understanding of the relationship between accountability and a safer laboratory environment.

Sidebar: Q&A: Lab-Safety education

Founded by Dr. James Kaufman in 1978, Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI) is a non-profit organization that provides lab safety training, audits, inspections and consulting services to education, government, and industry sectors worldwide. In this Q&A, LSI’s Assistant Director Christina Dillard discusses safety challenges and solutions:

Q: What approaches to lab safety education would most surprise people?

A: Students can make it all the way through K-12, get their undergrad degree, graduate degree and doctorate and still not understand the basic concepts of lab safety. If they don’t appreciate what the hazards are, they can’t possibly understand the risks.

Q: What is the biggest impediment to ensuring safety in research labs?

A: The biggest challenge is a lack of culture dedicated to safety. There’s a drive to succeed in research and science, and researchers are incredibly focused. But they’ve made it all the way through their education without a lot of attention given to safety. Without that, they don’t have the knowledge to approach their work safely. It’s not a character flaw; it’s just that we’ve bred scientists without the core understanding that safety is an integral component of research.

Q: There’s common thinking among industry observers that safety officers and lab principals don’t understand each other’s role and therefore act at cross-purposes. How should universities address that?

A: When I was a safety officer, I didn’t get it initially. I’d approach researchers and say, "This is the rule and you have to follow it," and they’d look at me like I was crazy. So I think there’s clearly a lack of understanding of what safety officers are requesting and why. Following some disagreements with lab directors, I changed my approach and became successful by emphasizing the need to find common ground. Until you do this, researchers view safety officers as if they’re the police, when you really need them to see you as a trusted adviser.

Still, safety officers can’t be strictly advisers when the stakes are high. You have the responsibility to enforce rules, which requires striking a balance between being a cop and adviser. It’s the safety officer’s job to tell a manager or student when they’re off track. There are cases where a researcher can break a rule only once before there are serious repercussions, so the officer must be clear that there’s no room for interpretation.

Q: Who should ultimately drive a university’s safety and compliance program?

A: Programs are most effective if they’re top down, requiring a top dog to say it’s extremely important to formulate a safety policy and that safety is everybody’s responsibility. Once that priority has been established, a university should assign a team to conduct a needs assessment. This includes basic procedures like performing audits of existing safety programs, conducting lab and office inspections, and evaluating the performance of individuals and groups. This helps laboratories determine what they do well and what they don’t.

Overall, universities need to open the lines of communication at every level and make safety an integral part of communications. When PIs hold a lab team meeting, or executives have a budget meeting, they should make safety discussions part of the agenda to keep safety top of mind.

Watson is president of BioRAFT, a U.S.-based provider of laboratory safety and compliance management solutions. He has managed laboratories at the University of California San Francisco Medical School and Dartmouth Medical School and serves on the board of directors for Laboratory Safety Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

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