Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Using a federal stick to enforce lab safety

The topic of lab safety, usually invisible in popular media, enjoyed an unaccustomed burst of national attention over the past 2 months. A series of events—some highly publicized, others much less noticed—came together to make a powerful point about how to increase protection for the hundreds of thousands of students, postdocs, and lab workers placed at risk by lax safety standards in many of the nation’s academic labs.  

Among the highly publicized events was a series of spectacular and potentially lethal slip-ups involving such gold-standard federal research establishments as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration, and a hearing looking into those agencies’ safety shortcomings by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. At that hearing, outraged House members demanded—and got—swift corrective action at facilities where epic sloppiness had endangered scores of workers and potentially the general public.

The pattern is an insufficient culture of safety.

—CDC Director Thomas Frieden

Among the less-noticed incidents was the agreement ending the long-running criminal case against University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) chemistry professor Patrick Harran, on charges arising from the death of research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji from a fire in Harran’s lab. Another was a decision by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to rescind $1.4 million in grants to a research group at Iowa State University (ISU) because of fraud allegedly committed by a former group member. “The National Institutes of Health decision comes on top of ISU's agreement to reimburse the federal agency $496,000 for salary and other costs related to [researcher] Dong-Pyou Han's employment,” reports The Des Moines Register. “The former ISU scientist is accused of faking experiment results to make it look like a vaccine was protecting rabbits against the AIDS virus. Han, who resigned from the university last year, faces four federal criminal charges that could bring prison time if he's convicted,” Tony Leys writes in the article. The relevance of this research-fraud case to safety will become apparent soon enough; just keep reading.

The other relevant event, announced only—as far as we know—on Harran’s lab website, was the second of two new NIH R01 research grants awarded to Harran. The first was awarded in April, when he still faced the criminal charges and possible jail time; the second was awarded in July, after he had accepted responsibility for the conditions leading to the fatal fire in his lab (but did not plead guilty to criminal charges). According to NIH’s RePORTER database, Harran’s two new grants will pay UCLA and his lab more than $922,000 per year in direct and indirect costs.

The lesson? It’s clear that the federal government can act strongly when it chooses to take action, to ensure safety in government labs or to combat academic lab fraud. So far, however, it has not chosen to use that power to ensure safety in university labs.  

Incentives and response

Safety has gotten heightened attention from many principal investigators (PIs) since 2011, when the Los Angeles district attorney brought against Harran the first-ever criminal proceedings in an academic safety case. The agreement in that case, however, ended the possibility of a trial and exacted only light penalties. It also left unanswered a key legal question: Are lab chiefs (along with universities) responsible for fatal safety violations? This ambiguous ending will likely undermine incentives for university lab chiefs to focus on safety, informed opinion argues. Harran’s recent funding success will no doubt have a similar effect.

In contrast, the congressional subcommittee’s reaction to unsafe conditions in federal labs, and its use of federal power to bring change, was unambiguous. The threat to innocent lives from poor lab-safety practices, though, extends far beyond the notorious anthrax-laden Ziploc bags, unlocked refrigerators, mislabeled flu virus, and wayward smallpox samples that sparked congressional fury. Chemical and physical perils such as those that needlessly killed Sangji and Yale physics student Michele Dufault, maimed Texas Tech University chemistry graduate student Preston Brown, and caused numerous other injuries, are still all too common on university campuses.

As noted in the groundbreaking 2011 report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), “modern accident causation theory recognizes that incidents are not the result of a single malfunctioning piece of equipment or the erroneous actions of one person, but instead are the result of a number of failures and deficiencies at many levels within an organization and its technical community.” Encouragingly, congressional questioners and government lab officials at the hearing understood this. “Add to the possible anthrax exposure the delayed notice provided to CDC leadership about avian flu shipments and the discovery of smallpox vials in a cardboard box in an FDA storage room on the NIH campus, and these incidents no longer appear isolated; a dangerous pattern is emerging … ,” said Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the full Energy and Commerce Committee. “The pattern is an insufficient culture of safety,” admitted CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

“[T]he ultimate responsibility for creating a safe environment and for encouraging a culture of safety rests with the head of the organization and its operating units,” states the CSB report, quoting a National Research Council study. “Even a well-conceived safety program will be treated casually by workers if it is neglected by top management.” Frieden took a number of prompt steps, closing labs and accepting resignations. Especially important from a systemic viewpoint were putting a high-level administrator in charge of lab safety, setting in motion a quest for further improvements, and promising discipline for those who broke rules or failed to report problems.

In the academic context, the CSB report continues, each lab’s PI must be fully engaged with safety—a situation that, despite apparent improvements, is far too rare today.

The power of dollars

Few things focus the attention of the nation’s lab chiefs, department chairs, and university administrators more intensely than the risk of losing federal grant dollars. Failing to exploit this reality in the cause of safety is a “missed opportunity,” the CSB report notes. As William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, recently suggested to The New York Times (referring to labs shipping hazardous agents), the power of federal funders to withhold grants “could be the stick” that forces researchers to give appropriate attention to safety.

One means of accomplishing that would be to include lab chiefs’ safety records among the materials submitted in grant proposals (and weighed in funding decisions), alongside currently required materials such as human subjects and vertebrate-care documentation. Some will argue against a new layer of regulation—yet, researchers continued to make new discoveries after new federal standards on human subjects, care of research animals, and so on brought sweeping improvements to practices that had formerly produced unacceptable results. In the fraud case, NIH’s strong action against ISU sends an unmistakable message: Fraud imperils funding. Surely academic lab workers, at risk from slovenly safety standards, deserve as much protection as the integrity of Han’s data or the workers at CDC.

The federal government has shown its power to raise lab-safety standards and protect the lives and well-being of lab workers in federal installations. The time has come for it to wield its stick to enhance safety at the academic labs it supports.