Lab Safety Essay
After the disasters, UCLA and Hawaii each received citations and fines for serious (that is, potentially life-threatening) violations from state safety agencies that had also noted earlier, unresolved issues.But these citations raise another important and often overlooked point.To be sure, industrial labs are not perfect and lax conditions are “not universal” on the nation’s campuses, but “university labs are not as safe as industrial labs,” says William Banholzer, who co-wrote a 2013 analysis in on the importance of teaching lab safety to students.Banholzer, a former executive vice president and chief technology officer at Dow Chemical, is now a research professor of chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.At Dow, safety was a high-priority issue, its former executive Banholzer adds.If a lab was running unsafely, he would “shut it down.” But no American faculty member has lost a job because a student was injured or killed in his or her laboratory.At Texas Tech, the CSB found that poor communication and carelessness in the lab allowed a student to scale up a chemical reaction to an unsafe level and also to remove his basic eye protection. Further, Cal/OSHA noted, the lab neither required anyone to wear appropriate protective apparel nor provided them with it.The death at Yale resulted from allowing students to work alone at a powerful 7-foot-long lathe — a machine used in wood and metalworking — with the safety shut-off switch an unmanageable distance from the worker. Even more troubling, safety issues had previously been flagged at all of these laboratories.
Campuses across the country, the report suggests, lack adequate safeguards and organization-wide safety consciousness reaching from top administrators through department heads to principal investigators in charge of labs and to senior lab staff, all of whom are responsible for protecting vulnerable lab workers.
And those failures, safety experts say, arise largely from the way university research is structured and the incentives this structure creates.
In industry, doing research safely is “a matter of doing business,” Harry Elston, editor of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, told me: Have a bad injury in your lab and “you’re not going to have a job the next day.” Occupational safety laws make potential liability for injury loom large, and that encourages companies to emphasize strong safety consciousness, extensive training, careful planning and analysis to mitigate risks, mandatory use of protective apparel and equipment, and more.
In other words, many of the hundreds of thousands of aspiring and early-career scientists — undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and technicians — who labor in the labs, shops, and field stations of the nation’s universities appear to spend their days in an environment plagued by risks that are well known, yet uncorrected.
“The question,” Banholzer asks, “is why in the world would we allow that to happen?