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Incentives for Academic Chemical Safety

Hi ChemJobber,

Your suggestions are great! I expanded on them in my post, suggesting methods of prodding. But as you concluded, the problem with policy is that it often makes me I wonder: are these too pie-in-the-sky?! Will they ever work? But I think policies are where students also can “take back the lab”, so to say. In having conversations about improve chemical laboratory safety makes them more aware perhaps of the deficiencies in their own lab.

I looked into the C&EN article that one of your comments referred to; on Yale’s changes in machine shop policies after Dufault died when her hair was caught in a lathe back in April 2011. Yale has implemented a lot of really great policies such as a hierarchical system of users and a defined buddy system. But what I find most valuable is that they decided to make their policies public so that other schools could implement them and provide feedback on what worked and what didn’t work as each campus is unique. A forum and discussion about policies is probably one of the best ways to formulate policy as well as a means for researchers to be reminded that accidents do happen and the best way to keep them from being lethal are to know how to be smart and quick.

ACS-Approved Institutions Requiring a Safety Practicum
Along the lines of knowing how to react, I like your idea about developing modules that have students learn to identifying a dangerous situation and discuss the appropriate way to step in. Everyday, we place an exorbitant amount of trust in our labmates. I trust that they will know what do if I happen to get into trouble, and I trust that they are cautious and aware of the hazards of their own chemistry.  In order to make sure that safety courses/modules are consistent and well covered, I would find a means to have them accredited and mandated. Perhaps to have a safety practices practicum be a part of the curriculum for an ACS-approved degree in chemistry. Universities do love to tout their ACS-approved degrees. ACS can say: “we will take it away if you don’t have a means of creating a culture that Safety is Important”. Funding: If it gets picked up as a requirement for accreditation, I can see it being funded through education initiatives. These would also fund activities such as Safety Fairs.

Screenshot of JoVE video: Microarray Analysis for Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Publishing Videos of Excellent Safety Techniques
Another great teaching avenue for chemical safety and proper preps would be to publish in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVe).  Here is a chance for a publication! After watching a few of the videos, this seems like a wonderful way to show the handling of a hazardous or (even difficult) procedures in the context of actual research that was carried out for a publication. These are peer reviewed journal articles that are presented in video format in order to bridge the complexity of translating what’s actually done at the bench into a written prep. From my quick perusal, there does not seem to be too many chemistry related videos, only lots and lots of biology/biochemistry related contributions (none of them are particularly dangerous procedures).  Plus, it is dogma that publication=funding, right? There is a potential incentive. If a video of me carrying out the prep accommodated my publication, you’d bet I’d make sure I had good technique.

But a video publication speaks to something that we have not mentioned or discussed yet, is there is room to incentivize safety? We have talked about the difficulty in forcing PIs to be responsible for proper mentoring, but what if there was a means for them receive an award if say, they submitted to the JoVE, created a video on how to properly handle the synthesis of azide derivatives, and it was viewed over 1,000 times.  Could it turn into an H-index-type measurement on safety and technique?

Authoritative Environmental, Health and Safety Personnel
Another policy suggestion would be to employ safety personnel who have the authority to fine or demerit laboratories. These individuals would be trained and accredited, perhaps by ACS and hired by the University, to audit laboratories and assess safety. Perhaps TTU modified its organization structure so that the Environmental, Health and Safety Director now reports to the Vice President for Research who also oversees the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair and PIs, as a means of increasing the authority and leverage of EH&S personnel.  One can only hope. Funding: Well, we technically already have this personnel, they just don’t seem to have a lot of authority over departments, and it does not seem any amount of funding can change this. It would have to be the University’s mandate that laboratories be audited and those audits taken seriously.

Perhaps one suggestion of mine is a bit out of the box (JoVE), but after watching a few of the high quality videos, I realized that for those who don’t get the proper mentoring, videos like these have the opportunity to be invaluable in teaching proper chemical technique and handling of hazardous reagents.

Best,
STEM_Wonk

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

Best,
STEM_Wonk

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.