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Winter 2014 Vol. 14 Number 2

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Safe Science

Promoting Safety in Academic Labs


Chemical hazards can be found in many academic fields and settings, including the physical and biological sciences, medical schools, engineering disciplines, and art studios. Recent serious accidents, some fatal, in research laboratories at U.S. universities have prompted government agencies, professional societies, industries, and universities themselves to re-examine the issue of safety in research that involves the use of chemicals.

While the availability and allocation of resources to lab safety varies across institutions, a constant commitment to safety organization-wide and an emphasis on identifying and solving problems are required, rather than merely sticking to standard operating procedures and assigning blame when they aren't followed, according to a recent National Research Council report. The committee that wrote the report used its behavioral sciences expertise together with an examination of successful safety systems from other industries, such as aviation and health care, to draw lessons that could be applied in academic settings.

Five groups have vital roles in supporting a strong safety culture at universities, the report says. First, presidents, chancellors, and provosts should demonstrate that safety is a core value of their institutions by discussing it frequently and publicly, as well as have in place a comprehensive risk management plan for lab safety that addresses prevention, mitigation, and emergency response.

Vice presidents for research and deans should ensure that their institutions only undertake areas of research that they can carry out safely. Principal investigators and department chairs should lead by example by wearing personal protective equipment, demonstrating safe practices in the labs they oversee, ensuring researchers are properly trained before they begin any work, and encouraging open, ongoing dialogue about safety.

Researchers, including students and postdocs, should be encouraged to take on leadership roles, such as serving on safety committees and taking part in organized non-punitive, walk-through inspections of other laboratories. In turn, institutions should provide researchers with the equipment, training, systems, and support they need to work safely.

Lastly, environmental health and safety professionals should partner with administrators, faculty, and researchers to go beyond compliance and support these groups as they undertake actions to establish a strong, positive safety culture.

In addition to improving the organizational dynamics that drive safety practice, laboratories should conduct analyses to identify dangers before they cause any harm and report and collect data on near misses -- situations in which a combination of unsafe conditions and/or behaviors could have led to injuries or other adverse outcomes.

-- Dana Korsen

Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research. Committee on Establishing and Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Laboratory Research; Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, Division on Earth and Life Studies; and Board on Human-Systems Integration, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2014, 128 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-30091-9; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study committee was chaired by Holden Thorp, provost and distinguished professor of chemistry and medicine, Washington University, St. Louis. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., ExxonMobil Chemical Co., and the American Chemical Society.

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