Fixing Lab Safety Failures

Laboratory environments challenge industrial hygienists in ways unlike other workplaces. While the rapidly changing research environment advances the frontier of scientific knowledge, innovation also introduces new hazards and risks to this unique work environment.

It’s common knowledge in the industry that there have been many significant lab incidents in the recent past, including the tragic death of UCLA graduate student Sheri Sangji in 2009, the 2010 explosion at Texas Tech, and the 2016 explosion at the University of Hawaii. These incidents demonstrate the need for robust, comprehensive safety programs in lab environments. Evaluations of these recent events, and third-party reviews of safety programs, have revealed the failure points that contributed to the incidents, which, if ignored, will likely lead to more. Researchers and IHs cannot rely on luck to prevent incidents in labs—we must diligently work toward safer labs. FAILURE POINTS The following failure points have been identified as contributing significantly to lab incidents.   Lack of a good safety culture, or presence of a poor safety culture. IHs have long discussed and promoted good safety culture—what it is, how to achieve it, and so on—but significant barriers to its development still exist in the lab environment. Chief among these is the lack of administrative support. For example, a recent safety symposium at a major university held a session on field research safety. The presentation introduced tools, such as templates and guides, that researchers could use to compile a field research safety plan. The response to the session demonstrated the lack of safety culture at the institution: at the end, the chair of the biology department said that if the university made the tools mandatory, then researchers would choose to lie on the form rather than use the tools. Calling the safety culture recommendations “ridiculous,” the department chair insisted that using the tools would take too much time. This incident showed the other participants in the session that department leadership did not support safety, and discouraged the development of an effective safety culture. Leadership must commit to the idea that good science is safe science. Poor control mechanisms. Often, the lack of good control mechanisms contributes to lab incidents. This phenomenon occurs in part because standard operating procedures are rarely written down, and when they are, they are often scavenged or borrowed from another source and are not customized to the lab’s actual operations. Also, physical space is limited at many institutions, so often research laboratory operations move to spaces that were originally designed as offices, classrooms, or computer labs. In such spaces, fume hoods and other engineering controls are either nonexistent, poorly maintained, or improvised in ways that may introduce even more hazards to the lab.  A researcher at one of the authors’ institutions hired his brother-in-law, a handyman, to connect two fume hoods—which the department had received secondhand from an upgrade project in another building—to the building’s exhaust system using dryer vent hose. Because the enterprise saved money, the administration praised the researcher—despite the makeshift nature of the job, the uncertain condition of the hoods, and the fact that the scientist’s cyanide-based research warranted extra caution. Poor control mechanisms in the laboratory are a tangible result of an inadequate safety culture among department leadership. Combine a lack of proper controls, including PPE, with highly hazardous research materials, and the consequences could be devastating. Lack of resources. Researchers often push back on the need to purchase vital safety equipment, stating that their grant funds are restricted. EHS programs are often understaffed and underfunded. IH and EHS professionals are very good at doing more with less, but at some point, the capacity of a system to make do on limited resources becomes overloaded. Hazards go unmitigated and people are put at risk. To prevent accidents, organizational leadership must step up, increase the capacity of safety management systems, and provide the resources researchers need to maintain not only compliant safety programs but those built on industry best practices. 
JAMES STUBBS is the associate director of the EHS Department at the University of Utah. He has over 25 years of experience in IH and health and safety, including 20 years in an academic research laboratory environment, and is the outgoing chair of the AIHA Laboratory Health and Safety Committee. MAHDI FAHIM is the assistant director-laboratory safety manager at North Carolina State University, Environmental Health and Safety Department. He is an industrial hygienist with over 25 years of experience in academic and industrial research environments, specializing in chemical safety and laboratory exhaust ventilation systems. He is an active member of AIHA, I2SL, and ACGIH.
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Lack of education. Training is the fallback of every OSHA citation abatement. What step do administrators claim to take to prevent the accident from happening again? Retrain all staff on relevant topics.  Training is important; relevant, impactful training is even more so. Good training is memorable, not tedious, and it instills understanding, not just of what must be done, but why it must be done. Training is not the endpoint of an OSHA citation but the beginning of lab incident prevention. Employees who understand why we have the programs we have and why we need them have a different mindset than employees who do not, and contribute to that overall goal of a positive safety culture. Training does not prevent incidents, but good training does give employees tools that, when properly applied, prevent incidents. Lack of capable oversight. Lab inspections are the bread and butter of lab safety programs. EHS departments develop checklists, send technical experts into labs to conduct inspections, and collect mountains of data, but then what? Does the new data drive the programs? Is the data used to predict outcomes in lab operations? If not, why do the inspections at all? Are there better ways to provide oversight in the lab environment? What about near-miss reporting and other mechanisms? We need to ensure that oversight programs actually change behavior and are not just checking a box each year. Lack of hazard review and management of change. Often researchers perform experiments without reviewing the hazards involved at each step in the proposed procedure. Changes to a procedure are usually done on the fly without taking time to consider their impacts and associated risks. The incident at Texas Tech is just one example of the impacts of a lab that neglects change management, and of the need for hazard analysis at every step in an experimental process.  RESOURCES FOR LAB SAFETY There are many failure points leading up to lab safety incidents, but those discussed above encompass many of them. In coming issues of The Synergist, AIHA’s Laboratory Health and Safety Committee will present a series of articles with information to help address these failure points, including case studies, lessons learned, and novel concepts and approaches, with the goal of providing resources to help implement stronger safety programs up front.  As we have all heard, a penny of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Leadership must commit to the idea that good science is safe science.
The Synergist: “Laboratory Chemical Safety Incidents, 2001–2018(November 2018). The Synergist: Letter from James A. Kaufman (November 2014). The Synergist: “Safety Test: What’s Behind the Rash of Incidents in Academic Labs?” (AIHA members-only PDF, August 2014).