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.

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 , the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) 2012 , the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB’s) 2010 , and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 1989 . It also provides a rich array of other resources.

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 withCareers. “If somebody violates our safety protocols, we’ll dismiss them.” A 2012 ACS report not mentioned among the “foundational” four, , 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, , 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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