A safe lab culture “should enhance what you do”


After the “Texas Tech Lessons” came out in August, I received an e-mail from Timothy C. Gallagher, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Bristol, in the U.K. He wanted to let me know that he was using the story to reinforce the safety culture in his department. I took the opportunity to chat with Gallagher a bit about the sorts of things he sees as critical to bolstering safety attitudes in his department. We focused on risk assessments, not working alone, and dealing with recalcitrant researchers.

The first thing Gallagher told me, though, is that he’s no lab saint. During the three years Gallagher spent as a postdoctoral researcher, lab accidents sent him to the hospital twice. Reflecting on his position now—in Britain, he is legally responsible for health and safety practices in his department—“to some extent I am a poacher turned gamekeeper,” he says.

On the subject of risk assessments, which are required “for every procedure every time,” Gallagher says that one of his concerns is that it becomes rote. “Safety by box ticking isn’t safety at all,” he says. “It’s all about people engaging with the safety process.”

One way Gallagher tries to address that is by looking at risk assessments during lab inspections. He also reminds people that they always look both ways before they cross the road, even if they’ve crossed the same street safely 100 times before, and that they should take the same approach with their experiments.

Another thing Gallagher highlights about his department’s safety culture is a prohibition on working alone—something that can be tricky to get right, he says. One approach is that no one works outside of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. because no one else will be there. Another is to get people to collaborate to enable longer or later time in the lab. In Gallagher’s department, “We have a culture where students will work with one another to enable their experiments,” he says, noting that people must work within the line of sight of another person. Having someone in an office down the hall doesn’t cut it.

Gallagher does not hesitate to ban people from the building when necessary. He spoke of one time when he came in to work on a Sunday morning and found people working together in one lab, plus another student off by himself. “I told him he couldn’t do that, and he nodded his head,” Gallagher says. “I went off and came back an hour later to find him still alone. I lost it and kicked him out.”

The underlying problem turned out to be a communication barrier. Gallagher recruited another student to translate. “We explained it and that guy has been an absolute model citizen ever since,” Gallagher says. “We all learned a lesson from that.”

In another situation, a senior postdoc “point blank refused to carry out risk assessments,” even when experiments involved reagents such as tert-butyllithium, Gallagher says. “I couldn’t believe that someone would not carry out a risk assessment for something as clearly hazardous as that.” Again, Gallagher banned the postdoc. The argument that finally seemed to get through was when Gallagher pointed out that, as a senior researcher, the postdoc had a professional responsibility to set a good example. “I don’t think anyone had said that to him before,” Gallagher says.

Of course, accidents do happen. An incident at Bristol last December left a student’s face and hands badly cut when an experiment exploded and shattered the safety glass on the fume hood. With the benefit of hindsight, Gallagher says that the most likely cause was a side reaction that produced a small amount of an alkyl peroxide, which detonated when it came into contact with a ground-glass joint. But the peroxide formation was not something anyone had foreseen. An investigation by the Health & Safety Executive—the U.K.’s version of OSHA—found nothing amiss with Bristol’s or the student’s training or procedures.

Ultimately, Gallagher says that the key to having a good safety culture is constantly reminding people of the responsibilities they have to themselves and to other people. He also says that it’s important to have strong leadership and to frame safety positively. “A safe culture is good,” he says. “It shouldn’t get in the way of what you do, it should enhance what you do.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Timothy C. Gallagher

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. The analogy to crossing the street is very helpful. I’ll use that in a training this morning. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. The working in groups issue always comes up, but it will never take hold. Never. You simply can’t convince people to always work in pairs (or more), especially late at night or on the weekends. PIs often facilitate this behavior (and so does the general process of tenure, but that is another discussion altogether). My PI made sure to tell us he didn’t like us working alone during our annual safety meeting, but if he saw us working alone late at night or on the weekends he just came in to talk about what we were doing. Never a harsh word was uttered about that, let alone any type of reprimand or punishment. On the other hand, he DID make sure to complain if there were particular weekends or evenings that he stopped by to see an empty lab.

  3. To Postdoc. Never take hold? I beg to disagree but I know the issue. You’d think that these PIs (because they aren’t all like this) would learn from other people’s mistakes………. Nothing to stop the research group sorting this for themselves and everyone is then “happy.”

  4. @Postdoc: I think you just emphasized Gallagher’s point that leadership is important!

  5. I completely agree Jyllian. Apologies Dr. Gallagher, I didn’t intend to belittle your contributions. I simply meant to point out that prohibiting people from working alone is a decision that will require many people to change their attitudes, most of all the leadership (as Jyllian pointed out).

    It’s quite difficult to coordinate the personal preferences of each person. Some are morning people, some are night owls. Some have families, others don’t. These types of things make it very difficult to get people to work in pairs. If it becomes so difficult that it means nobody works on the weekend or late into the evening, most PIs would quickly learn to feel comfortable with people being in lab by themselves.