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.
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?
Photo credit: Dow Chemical