A broader focus on academic lab safety

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU)—which comprises more than 230 institutions and university systems from every state, the District of Columbia, Mexico, Canada,  Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands—has formed a task force on laboratory safety. The new group “will provide research universities with recommendations and guidance on the most appropriate strategies to enhance a culture of laboratory safety,” according to a 23 April announcement. Composed of “senior research officers and environmental and health safety experts” from a range of universities, the group was “created in coordination with the Association of American Universities (AAU), American Chemical Society (ACS), and Council on Government Relations (COGR),” the announcement adds.

This is welcome news for several reasons. First, many academic labs sorely need “recommendations and guidance”—and more—in order to work safely, as shown by this horrifying litany of disasters and near-disasters recounted on Reddit by scientists and students.

If the task force succeeds in significantly improving safety culture and practices in its members’ labs, the impact would be vast.

Second, 4.8 million undergraduates and 1.3 million graduate students attend APLU’s member institutions, which collectively do $41.1 billion worth of research, according to the organization’s website. If the task force succeeds in significantly improving safety culture and practices in its members’ labs, the impact would be vast.

Third, two of the most notorious lab safety incidents in recent years occurred at member institutions: the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, fire that led to the death of lab assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji and the Texas Tech University (TTU) explosion that maimed and critically injured graduate student Preston Brown. The Sangji incident sparked an unprecedented criminal case against UC and Sangji’s lab chief, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The Brown case inspired a sweeping, first-ever report on the woeful safety conditions in many academic labs from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Reforms followed at both universities and throughout the UC system.

That experience appears likely to benefit the task force in its work. Chairing the 13-member group is Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was TTU’s vice president of research at the time of Brown’s injury. Also on the task force is Alice Young, TTU’s associate vice president for “Research, Responsible Research,” who was the faculty fellow for research integrity in the office of TTU’s vice president for research at the time of the Brown incident.

A task force meeting on 6 and 7 May in Washington, D.C., will feature “invited speakers from the National Academies, the American Chemical Society, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Board, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oak Ridge National Lab, Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs, Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association, and American Biological Safety Association,” according to the announcement.

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