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Urging universities to act on safety

Recent weeks have brought good news and bad news concerning lab safety. The bad news, of course, is the 16 March explosion at the University of Hawaii (UH), Manoa, that severely injured a postdoc. The good news is an extremely useful new report titled A Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture in Our Universities. Both the report and a companion website were issued 11 April by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), whose members include 25 university systems and 207 universities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

As suits its topic, the guide begins on a note of urgency. “[E]ach of us has experienced tragedy at our present or former institutions involving accidents in university laboratory or field facilities,” write the leaders of the task force that produced the report: Gene Block, chancellor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and Mark McLellan, vice president for research and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Utah State University in Logan. Block headed UCLA when lab assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji died from burns suffered in a lab fire. Eighmy was vice president for research at Texas Tech University when a lab explosion maimed graduate student Preston Brown. McLellan was the University of Florida’s dean of research when undergraduate Courtney Mason lost a hand while handling a horse at the university’s Equine Research Center.

The document goes on to outline the attitudes, procedures, and administrative structures likely to reduce calamities in research labs as well as in “teaching laboratories; in shops, studios, and stages; in teaching classrooms; and in the field.” Emphasizing the widely accepted principle that any effective safety regime requires strong, consistent, and credible commitment from the organization’s top leadership, “[t]he guide is intended for university presidents and chancellors who have made a renewed commitment to improve their institutional culture of safety, [plus] the campus leadership team that the president appoints to helm this effort.” Widespread adoption of the guide’s recommendations would go “a long way to catalyzing the … changes” needed to make campuses safer, writes safety expert Neal Langerman in an email to Science Careers.

Accepted wisdom

The guide distills years of thinking about lab safety by presenting 20 specific recommendations “primarily drawn from four foundational reports:” the National Research Council’s (NRC's) 2014 Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS's) 2012 Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB's) 2010 Texas Tech University Laboratory Explosion Case Study, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 1989 Creating a Safety Culture. It also provides a rich array of other resources.

The proven approach drawn from these documents emphasizes that leaders must communicate with and gain buy-in from university members at every level. This includes top administrators and senior faculty members; all the teaching, research, and staff ranks; and students ranging from the most advanced Ph.D. candidates to the newest undergraduates. It urges making safety an explicit, prominent, and consistent institutional priority; providing and requiring effective and thorough training; and establishing clear and unified processes for assessing risks and reporting incidents and near-misses to allow learning from mistakes. To ensure that such learning takes place, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and staff members all need to be explicitly empowered “to voice safety questions and concerns to their faculty supervisors, [Environmental Health and Safety] offices, and/or safety committee” without fear of reprisal, it adds.

Especially significant is the recommendation to “establish recognition and reward systems” that encourage good safety practices and “integrate [safety] into tenure and promotion, hiring, and annual performance reviews.” Exactly how such an evaluation system should work in practice is less clear, however. Would faculty members merely get “extra credit” for good safety performance, or would substandard practices constitute a genuine drag on career prospects? Will academe follow industry—where, as the report states, safety cultures are “strong and well-developed”—in applying serious, career-damaging consequences to lab leaders who permit conditions that lead to preventable safety incidents?

Traditionally, the structure of academic research has severely undermined the authority that university officials can exercise over the behavior of independently funded faculty members, as both the CSB report and Safe Science explain. Lab chiefs support their research by winning grants from outside funders, with research productivity generally serving as the overriding criterion of professional success. The CSB goes so far as to describe lab chiefs on many campuses as independent “fiefs” only “nominally subordinate” to administrators or department chairs. Safe Science also mentions faculty independence and intense pressure for productivity as important sources of “potential conflict between a culture of safety and productive grant-supported research.” Lab chiefs who “operate autonomously … in some cases may regard good safety practices, such as inspections by outsiders or following established safety procedures, as a barrier to research progress and a violation of their academic freedom,” it states.

In industrial labs, in contrast, inadequate attention to safety is a firing offense, noted William Banholzer, former chief technology officer at Dow Chemical Company, in a 2013 interview with Science Careers. “If somebody violates our safety protocols, we’ll dismiss them.” A 2012 ACS report not mentioned among the “foundational” four, Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, recommends “[s]tandards of laboratory safety for graduate education and research [that] adhere to best practices found in industry,” and the APLU guide also encourages universities to learn from industry.

To strengthen safety regimes in academe, the CSB report also suggests that funding agencies tie funding eligibility to safety performance. Quoting a 2011 NRC publication, Prudent Practices in the Laboratory, it states, “When negligent or cavalier treatment of laboratory safety regulations jeopardizes everybody’s ability to obtain funding, a powerful incentive is created to improve laboratory safety.” The CSB report goes on to point out that “[t]he grant funding agency has the power to end a research contract/agreement and, thus, can play an impactful role in raising safety awareness and preparedness by the researcher and university.” Safe Science, however, terms this recommendation controversial. As university leaders exercise no authority over the policies of independent funding agencies, the APLU guide does not discuss the issue.

An overdue opportunity

Underlining the urgent need for universities to take the steps that APLU advises, investigators from the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD) recently concluded that the UH explosion was caused by a spark that ignited flammable gases when the postdoc tried to measure the gas pressure with a digital meter not rated for this use. The report did not explain how the researcher came to use a device that was, in the words of an HFD battalion chief, “not suited to [this] purpose.” It did, however, note that the device had created a smaller spark some days before the explosion, but that this near miss was not reported. Both the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health division and the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (hired by UH) are also investigating the cause of the explosion and may produce broader answers.

The victim is reportedly out of the hospital but doubtlessly faces a long and costly recovery, as well as a lessened ability to do bench research. The silver lining, if it can be called that, is that, as university employees, UH postdocs injured in the workplace are eligible for state workers' compensation, writes UH spokesman Daniel Meisenzahl in an email to Science Careers. This covers medical expenses, temporary total disability during recovery, payments for scarring and disfigurement, permanent partial disability payment for loss of bodily parts or function, permanent total disability payments if a return to work is impossible, and vocational rehabilitation if needed. 

A student injured in the same explosion, however, would have had no such automatic coverage to help with crushing expenses and damaged career prospects. In some circumstances, depending on state law and university policy, graduate student employees may qualify for workers' compensation. Other students, however, must rely on personal medical insurance and legal action against the institution, notes science teaching safety consultant Linda Stroud in an email to Science Careers. Nor do the occupational safety laws that cover employees—and empower government authorities to investigate incidents and, if appropriate, to cite and penalize institutions—cover students. None of the safety reports address this discrepancy.

The APLU’s detailed and highly informative guide nonetheless provides universities “an unprecedented opportunity to align a distinct national need with the core purpose of great research universities,” says task force co-chair Eighmy in a statement announcing the guide’s publication. “A culture of lab safety is integral to the discovery enterprise. … I hope that each institution embraces this opportunity for positive change.”

Researchers across the country should also hope that their universities heed the APLU’s “call to action” and get to work right away trying to prevent atrocious and needless incidents like those at UH and on the task force chairs’ campuses. They should also hope that funding agencies heed the advice of the CSB and ACS reports. When this happens, there ought to be less bad safety news to report.

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