No lab director wants to receive a complaint from an inspector. But James Gibson, PhD, director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) at UCLA, remembers one instance when a grievance brought a smile to his face.
A policy had recently been implemented in UCLA labs that clearly defined the rules for wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). When inspectors arrived for an annual review, they removed their PPE from a previous lab examination to avoid cross-contamination. Laboratory personnel refused entry because they were not wearing the proper gear — unaware of whom the visitors were. The inspectors complained to Gibson, but he felt pleased instead of disappointed because his colleagues had demonstrated an unflinching dedication to safety regulations.
Gibson believes that consistent compliance comes from
strong leadership. He and his team aim to nurture an environment devoted to workplace safety in each and every lab. “Good safety culture almost always comes from the top. If the lab manager or supervisor leads by example and shows that they value workplace safety, then their employees tend to mirror that attitude,” he explains.
The rules of lab safety are extensive and often laborious. Lab managers must memorize long lists of state and federal regulations, such as no food, no drink, no entry without PPE, constant paperwork, and specific cleaning methods. Ideally, these rules become second nature through practice and reinforcement, but employees will not take regulations seriously if their supervisor does not.
To demonstrate commitment, Gibson emphasizes that workplace safety must be carried out year-round. “All too often, many laboratory researchers view lab safety as an administrative burden or something to be concerned with just before and during an annual inspection,” he says. The rules may seem draconian, but they exist for a reason. Researchers and supervisors are responsible for the safety of everyone in the lab, and a small slip-up could result in dire consequences.
The worst possible repercussion, according to Gibson, is a workplace injury. His office makes harm prevention its top priority. “In the vast majority of instances, non-complaint findings are quickly corrected,” he says. “However, activities found to be IDLH [immediately dangerous to life or health] are immediately halted until the hazard is corrected.”
Major accidents are unusual, but the dangerous chemicals and machinery used routinely in labs must never be taken for granted. Academic researchers often stay late and work alone, meaning they are unsupervised and frequently tired — a recipe for mishaps.
Experiments are at times put before safety in university labs. American Chemical Society surveys show that 70.5% of faculty and 52.1% of graduate students in the U.S. often or occasionally work alone in laboratories, which is banned in industry labs. Universities are thus more likely to encounter severe and occasionally catastrophic mishaps.
In one tragic example, Michele Dufault, a 22-year-old undergraduate student at Yale, stayed late to work on a chemistry project in the lab’s machine shop in 2011. Her hair got caught in a lathe, and she was choked to death. Because she was likely alone, no one was able to come to her aid in time. Dufault had completed all required lab safety training and had used the machine many times previously. It was later discovered that the lathe was missing safeguards and not up to national safety standards.
A couple of years before Dufault’s death, a young UCLA graduate student, Sheharbano Sangji, met a horrifying death when she accidentally exposed a pyrophoric substance to air. She was tirating tert-Butyllithium (tBuLi) — which combusts on contact with air — under a fume hood. The plastic syringe containing the tBuLi popped out of the barrel and the chemical ignited. The surprise caused her to knock over an open flask of hexane, which was also under the hood, though not part of the experiment.
The resulting fire consumed Sangji — who was not wearing a lab coat and may not have been wearing protective goggles. A fellow researcher tried to put out the
flames by wrapping her in a lab coat and dousing her with water, but it was too late. She died 18 days later from the injuries.
Both accidents caused major stir in the world of academic labs. After Sangji’s death, UCLA launched the UC Center for Laboratory Safety — the first center in the U.S. devoted entirely to improving the practice of lab safety through scientific research — and continues an unwavering dedication to safe practices. Yale responded by increasing safety training and limiting work hours in labs for undergraduates.
Despite the lessons offered by these tragedies, Gibson and other safety officers still face the ongoing challenge of negative attitudes toward regulations. He has formulated methods that help overcome this obstacle and keep lab safety on track.
“First, it’s critical that we identify the hazards in the laboratory and train the researchers on how to work safely to mitigate any risk that might be present,” Gibson says. The training and safety activities must be continuous and not a one-time introduction for new lab workers. His office provides daily guidance and oversight for UCLA laboratories.
“Another challenge is that researchers sometimes make incorrect assumptions about others’ level of safety knowledge,” Gibson continues. Researchers need to keep an eye out for one another and speak up if they see a colleague making a safety violation. It can be easy to get absorbed in one’s own work, but, if a student leaves out an open container of a potentially dangerous chemical, classmates need to take notice and step in rather than assume the person knows what they are doing.
Finally, Gibson recommends close supervision. Everyone behaves a little better when they know they are being watched. “It’s really the proverbial ‘management by walking around.’ It really works,” he claims.
Now, even lab inspectors are called out for violations at UCLA. “It all comes down to developing and maintaining a culture of safety where trained and informed laboratory researchers automatically do the safe thing — sort of like putting on your seatbelt when you get into your car. You do it without even thinking.
— Mapes is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer. She wrote about obesity and dementia in the February issue.