, is the biosafety officer and chemical hygiene officer for Corteva Agrisciences in Iowa. She has experience in academic research and teaching labs, and industrial research environments. She is the president of the Nebraska-Western Iowa AIHA Local Section and secretary for the AIHA Biosafety and Environmental Microbiology Committee.
is an EHS&S senior manager at BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, Inc. in San Rafael, California. She has worked as an industrial hygienist in biotech and at research institutions for more than 15 years. Currently she serves as secretary of the AIHA Women in IH Committee and has previously served as chair of the Laboratory Health and Safety Committee and president of the AIHA Northern California Section.   Send feedback to The Synergist.
How to Recruit Researchers to Lab Safety
In the August 2020 issue of
The Synergist
, the article “Fixing Lab Safety Failures” by James Stubbs and Mahdi Fahim outlined five failure points that contribute to the occurrence of lab safety incidents. If these failure points were addressed by research department leadership, Stubbs and Fahim asserted that safer labs would result. This article is the second in the series begun by Stubbs and Fahim’s article, and will focus on labs that lack a good safety culture, and those that maintain a poor safety culture.
A 2013 survey of 2,400 scientists published in the magazine
found that while most of the lab personnel surveyed felt their work environment was safe, about half had experienced injuries and almost a third reported witnessing at least one major lab injury. The survey participants claimed that injuries were part of the job, and many said they had not reported these incidents. Another survey conducted at a private research institution found that about half of the laboratory staff who responded worried about being injured on the job. This pair of surveys indicates that, while researchers may not say that lab safety is an issue, lab injuries are common, and the fear of one occurring is justified. In other words, researchers may not necessarily realize that they need the services of a health and safety professional, although they still feel the need acutely.
Like in any other workplace, senior leadership must set the tone for safety culture in the laboratory setting. Management needs to engage with and listen to the laboratory staff in order to understand which safety issues and obstacles encountered by staff are the most pressing. Leadership can also ensure that the correct amount of time and money is allocated toward improving safety and fixing issues. In the
survey, laboratory staff expressed that they did not have enough time to adequately address safety in every research project.
Leadership at all levels, from the top down, needs to be engaged in promoting lab safety, but the participation of principal investigators (PIs) or lab managers is the most important. The senior leadership must hold the PIs or lab managers accountable for the safety of their labs. Meanwhile, the PIs or lab managers can demonstrate their commitment to safety by following established policies and procedures and immediately correcting infractions and unsafe conditions or practices. This can be as simple as telling an employee to wear the required personal protective equipment.  
Lab personnel also play a role in creating a positive safety culture. Safety and health must be considered during the design process of every research project, by accounting for dangerous materials, chemicals, or substances; identifying, reducing, and eliminating procedural hazards; and researching and procuring PPE. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be developed and followed for high-risk operations. When environmental health and safety professionals are involved in project design, researchers should ask them for their feedback and ideas about fixing a safety hazard. Getting them involved helps install and maintain a strong safety culture.
As discussed previously, many scientists believe their labs are safe places to work. Consequently, researchers often feel comfortable with working alone in a lab, neglecting to report injuries, and not completing sufficient safety hazard training—viewing safety training, risk assessments, and other measures intended to help prevent lab safety incidents as mandated hassles. Though lab personnel know their research inside and out, they must appreciate that safety can help their research and create a positive safety culture in their workplaces. As the adage goes: safe science is good science. Sharing statistics about lab safety issues with researchers is one method of education, but simply informing researchers of the hazards present in their workplace will not suffice. In the long run, they must become involved in the hazard assessment process. Often, getting there requires removal of unconscious assumptions related to their work and the role of safety procedures in it. 
Like in any other workplace, senior leadership must set the tone for safety culture in the laboratory setting.
Along with factoids about lab safety, EHS professionals should present researchers and senior leadership with the lessons that the health and safety community has learned from each incident. Use the hierarchy of controls when discussing these lessons to help researchers better understand how they should identify and control each hazard before an incident occurs. Researchers working with EHS professionals in risk assessment must become the norm in order to reduce potential injuries or exposures. Such a setup would also provide opportunity for frequent, open communication between both groups. Frequent and transparent communication builds trust and reinforces a positive safety culture, with open reporting of safety concerns.
Creating trust between safety professionals and researchers is a long and arduous process, but worth it in the end. Trust in this type of relationship means that researchers know that EHS will not hinder their research in any way, but only help them to be safe at work. Trust requires communication. Reach out by presenting at research group meetings, taking friendly walks through their labs (without a clipboard or checklist—it sends the wrong message), or by starting a quarterly lab safety newsletter. Communicating your goal of ensuring researchers’ safety and success in their work also goes a long way to establish a positive safety culture. Positive safety culture will be more easily maintained when employees feel comfortable reporting safety concerns to the EHS department and have positive feelings toward the reporting process. Trust also demands consistency from safety professionals. If safety professionals have said they would investigate an issue or complaint, they must follow through with that promise. Honesty, humility, and respect are other requirements—it’s okay for a safety professional to say to a researcher, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” Once again, however, there must be follow-through or the researchers will lose trust, and researchers should be involved in applying whatever answer they receive.  Working with each lab to “personalize” its safety procedures is another method of building trust between safety professionals and lab researchers. EHS must know who the researchers are and what their research is about in order to implement safety policies and standards that fit each lab or project. How a safety policy is implemented in Lab A may not look the same as its implementation in Lab B due to different researchers’ personalities or to different project requirements.  For example, Corteva, an agricultural research company, implemented a new cut prevention policy last year. One of the company’s lab groups used scalpels on plant tissue, requiring fine motor skills, and performed this task for hours each day. The lab group found that wearing the required cut-preventive gloves decreased lab researchers’ productivity and introduced an ergonomic hazard. Taking the realities of this lab group’s research into account, the company decided that wearing protective gloves was not required for this task, but was for others involving the use of sharp tools such as scalpels. This scenario demonstrates how EHS shouldn’t hinder research progress or introduce new hazards, but truly create a safer environment for all researchers to work in. This in addition to the items previously mentioned—thorough education and engagement of senior staff—is necessary to establish a positive and effective safety culture at your organization. While lab personnel may know their research, they are not always familiar with the hazards present in their workplace, how to mitigate them, or how to assess risk. The EHS professional’s role is to guide them through this territory, demonstrating leadership and mutual respect in addition to their health and safety expertise.  
: “Safety Survey Reveals Lab Risks: Questionnaire Suggests Researchers Not as Safe as They Feel” (January 2013).