Promoting Safe Research Practices

In my story Learning from UCLA, about the laboratory fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, one of the things that Rick Danheiser, a chemistry professor and chair of his department’s safety committee at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cautions against is trying to improve laboratory safety in such a way that that you wind up with an adversarial relationship between researchers and environmental health & safety personnel.

Others have warned against being too punitive, since that just encourages people to hide what goes wrong. And as I’ve written before, if you don’t know what happened then you can’t learn from it.

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Davis dons goggles, gloves, and a flame-resistant lab coat to do experiments at Dow.

So, if people want to improve the safety culture in their departments, what are positive ways to do it? Anna Davis, a researcher just wrapping up her first year at Dow Chemical, thinks that academic departments could benefit from collaborating with industrial labs on good safety practices. Rohm & Haas, which was recently acquired by Dow, was actually working on a project with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers to develop a safety certification program for academic departments, says Susan Dallessandro, a senior research & development director at Dow. Dow is evaluating how to develop that program within its existing outreach efforts, Dallessandro says.

James Kaufman, director of the Laboratory Safety Institute, suggests that colleges and universities get creative with rewards. “We have lots of ways of telling people they’re doing a bad job but relatively few ways of saying thank you for a good job,” he says. One idea that he has for larger institutions is to have EH&S officers nominate labs they inspect every month for a “safety excellence” award that includes a thank you from top-level administration. Once a year the school’s president could then invite those labs to a lunch at which he or she could personally thank them.

In a report issued last month (pdf), UCLA’s new laboratory safety committee also encouraged the university to develop a reward system to encourage safety compliance in labs. Does your school or workplace make a point of rewarding safe research practices? What positive ways would you suggest to promote lab safety?

Tomorrow on C&ENtral: Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents
Previously this week: Safety in Academic Labs; Evaluating Safety; Personal Protection from Fire; Tampering with Evidence?

Photo credit: Dow Chemical

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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3 Comments

  1. What Professor Danheiser says is correct. EH&S departments have spent many years working on NOT being the cop on the beat, because that does not work. However, the missing ingredient at most universities, at most companies, that do not have successful, thriving safety programs is everything that constitutes a true safety culture: ownership at the top, true accountability, expectations, metrics against those expectations, resources to see it through. Under such circumstances, EH&S is the BEST friend a researcher has…!

  2. When I worked at a Big Pharma, they had different ways of rewarding EH&S knowledge. They’d have this really annoying fair where they’d herd all the chemists into a room and pump them full of EH&S learning and raffle off a couple of iPods and stuff (a Wii, one year) for (mandatory) attendance.

    You gotta do it, so you might as well make it fun, I guess. (It was fun, in that corporate “we all have to do this cheesy thing” sort of way.)

  3. You need a balance of the carrot and the stick. I’m very much in favor of finding more ways to reward good performance (as noted above).

    At the same time, organizations need to have policies that are in writing (safety manual). If the the policies are not in writing, you do not have policies … you have an oral tradition.

    And, the policies need to be enforced (by the employee’s supervisor; not EHS). If the policies are not enforced, you do not have policies … you have lip service.

    The organizations with the best safety programs accept the principle that working safely is a condition of employment.

    After all the good training, After all the friendly reminders and supportive coaching. You need to be able to reach a point where the supervisor says to an employee, this is not how we do it here. This behavior is unacceptable. We do have a progressive discipline program (verbal warning, written warning, paid decision-makining leave of absence, termination). If this bahavior occurs again, we will need to begin following our discipline procedure.

    Everytime you do not enforce a rule … you make a new rule. … Jim

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