Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber

Hi Chemjobber,Thanks for the opportunity to do this little exchange about academic lab safety and to see if we can develop feasible policies to improve upon academic chemical safety. I completely understand your response to the CSB video. I found myself cringing and gnawing at my nails when the animated Brown returned to the lab bench without his safety goggles just before the graphic explosion.

One of the many posters that decorates our lab.

My thoughts on the incidents at UCLA and TTU are very similar to what you and much of the chemical community discussed at the time, to sum up:

  • where lies the responsibility of the PI in all of this?
  • we all have been naive* at one point or another (*perhaps even reckless to gain “productivity”)

but more importantly, what can be done so that we can continue to learn and carry out meaningful research that is not at the expense of our safety?

In both cases at UCLA and TTU, I strongly agree that there seems to be lack of responsibility placed on the PI to carefully train their students to be able to “accurately identify and address hazards in the laboratory…a skill that [does not] come naturally…and must be taught and encouraged through training and ongoing organizational support” (NRC, 2011, p.7). The CSB’s Investigation of the TTU incident does not mention any repercussions for the PIs having not properly mentored the students.  I believe that what is clearly missing from the CSB’s recommendations is for universities to establish consequences for a PI that does not enforce safety protocols, endangering students’ lives.

Why is that? Why is there no pointing of fingers at the PIs? You mentioned that you thought Professor Harran (UCLA incident) should also share responsibility, but why do you think it seems as though he has been “protected”? The CSB Investigation of TTU is riddled with examples (although they do not say this, I do) where the PIs would be the individuals most aware of the risks and yet they are not reprimanded. Examples such as: instructing and ensuring that students read and understand in the protocols on handling explosives, such as policies outlined in the DOE Explosive Safety Manual. (*yes, yes, students don’t listen too. But as you know, Chembark and Everyday Scientist already did a great post here and here on that side of things.)

This paragraph in the case study outlines exactly why more responsibility should be placed on the PI:

At academic institutions, the research of individual PIs can differ significantly; consequently, the hazards of research can vary widely among different laboratories. Even within the same laboratory under a single PI, students commonly work on different projects that can pose diverse safety hazards. This indicates a need for guidance on various hazard evaluation methodologies and instruction on how and when each should be used within an academic laboratory  research work environment. Detailed examples for multiple methodologies would help researchers determine the most effective way to evaluate the hazards of their work, whether they are due to routine procedures, modifications to current research, or entirely new endeavors.

How can anyone else other than the PI know about all the hazards of so many projects?

The indented quote also illustrates the variety of research that funding agencies have to deal with and why I believe that it would be difficult for a funding agency to be able to outline safety provisions to their grantees. Even though this is a recommendation of the CSB.

However, after muling over the surprisingly immediate action of the Office of University Programs in DHS after the TTU incident and the specific changes they have made to their Requests (RFP), I see these actions as attempts to have PIs be more responsible. Is this what you glean from section 8.2 of the case study? From the bulleted points in the CSB report, it seems as though RFPs (Request for Proposals) may require the grant requester to assess and be aware of the safety risks and physical hazards of a project along with the anticipated science. Yet, knowledge of these dangers during grant writing does not ensure the appropriate amount of mentoring and relaying of this information to the students.

Am I too harsh on PIs?!  Idk, would grad school be a better world if PIs trained their students to be safe rather than just gather results? “Prior to the incident, weekly group meetings between students and PIs were held, but the focus was primarily on experimental results, not actually research activities and the safety implications of the work.” – CSB TTU Case Study


Hi readers! Chemjobber has given me a chance to do a bit of back-and-forth this week on academic chemical safety. See his first response here and he will respond to my post on his blog on Thursday.  Chemjobber has been one of my favorite blogs for quite some time, and I am very honored for the conversation on this topic of lab safety.


3 responses to “Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber”

  1. Lynne says :

    I have little faith in the ability of some PIs to recognize safety hazards. I was once told by mine that we didn’t need safety showers unless we were working with flammable chemicals (acids? toxic materials? hello???). All academic institutions need to do a better job of creating an overall culture of safety. Make it easy to follow the rules and use positive reinforcement as well as punishment.

  2. Kay says :

    I think fear has a big part in this. I’ve known a lot of PIs who had the attitude, “you don’t know how to do X? you must be stupid, and maybe I shouldn’t have let you in my group after all.” (Or maybe I shouldn’t give you the plum project, etc.) That’s particularly true of safety, since safety requirements are not well documented and need to be passed down from one person to another. (If you are trying to learn safety by reading the instructions on the bottle, you’ll either think everything is safe or you’ll be convinced that sand and water are lethal dangers.) If you’re afraid to ask questions because you might get in trouble with your boss, then you probably aren’t going to be asking how to use a certain chemical in a safe way. I’ve seen the same issues in industry, particularly in hyper-competitive environments where layoffs are a constant threat. Industry tends to be more pro-active when it comes to safety, but learning about the risks of specialized chemicals often comes from a supervisor or coworker.

  3. GunTotingHero says :

    PIs have no incentive to create safety-conscious students, only productive ones. Tenure is dependent on funding levels and number and quality of publications. Keeping students from harming themselves while obtaining results is a secondary concern, and once tenure is obtained anything goes.

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