At the National Research Council’s recent Safety Summit, a representative of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board indicated that preliminary studies the board has completed on recent laboratory accidents identified four specific reasons for these accidents:
1. Individuals typically responsible for conducting laboratory safety inspections do not always have the authority to suspend laboratory activities if unsafe or inadequate practices are identified.
2. There is a lack of clear responsibility or tracking of the safety training for laboratory specific hazards.
3. There is a lack of understanding of how to analyze potential safety hazards in academic research—there is no formalized practice of conducting hazard assessments of research activities prior to beginning the research.
4. Grant funding does not always specifically include a safety component requirement.
It is the last of these four I’d like to address. Specifically, should labs or institutions have to pass some sort of a national or international standard management process addressing safety? What organization would be the most qualified to develop such a standard? Is the idea even practical—are there such variances in the types and levels of research that safety would defy any effort at standardization? If I count correctly, that’s four questions, which is probably adequate for debating purposes.
I believe it is practical to develop a standard, or rather several standards, to provide issuers of research grant money some direction when evaluating proposals. One standard should address the level of risk determination required to assure safety or laboratory workers when undertaking a laboratory procedure. While there are huge variances in the types of research being performed in university chemical laboratories, it’s logical that the use of some chemical classes and some specific laboratory equipment should require more assessment of risk. Likewise, procedures that represent minimal safety risk should require less time for risk evaluation. There is an ongoing effort by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety to establish “chemical safety levels” for labs that could be very timely in terms of helping researchers and grant issuers agree on a realistic standard for research operations.
As to which organization might be best suited to develop such a standard, it is not unrealistic to suggest that ACS could and should take a front seat. With thousands of chemists involved in both academic and industrial research, there is no organization anywhere that could match ACS in potential users of a lab risk standard.
As for the question of whether safety evaluation by funding agencies is practical, a better question is whether or not it is politically feasible. Grant issuers might say that one more layer of evaluation just increases paperwork and labor. Researchers might claim the same, as well as suggesting that it could interfere with their already pressured schedules.
I’d like to see how the opinions go on this. The National Academy of Sciences is going to weigh in eventually on this issue, and all indications are that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. Chemical safety is not getting the attention it needs at every academic institution. While there are many excellent environmental health and safety offices and programs, bench-level safety is perhaps not being addressed to the degree needed.