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Moving forward at UCLA

With the news last month that the Los Angeles County Superior Court has once again delayed the arraignment of the University of California, Los Angeles, and chemistry professor Patrick Harran on felony charges for labor code violations, it seemed appropriate to take a closer look at what the university is doing to move forward.

In response to the death of UCLA laboratory researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, the university instituted a number of safety improvements, including more thorough lab inspections, more flame-resistant lab coats, and additional special training in the use of safety gear and the handling of air-sensitive chemicals. UCLA also established a Center for Laboratory Safety (CLS). According to the CLS website, the center was created to “improve the practice of laboratory safety through the performance of scientific research and implementation of best safety practices in the laboratory.” The Center operates under the oversight of an advisory board, with technical support from the UCLA Office of Environment, Health & Safety (EH&S) and the UCLA School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

James Gibson, UCLA’s director of EH&S and the executive director of the CLS, has been on the road constantly promoting the center as well as UCLA’s overall response to the Sangji incident. Also promoting the center everywhere has been Erike Young, the EH&S director for UC’s Office of the President. Young is charged with seeing that all of the UC campuses improve their safety culture. He pointed out during his 2010 talk at the National Research Council’s Safety Summit that most UC campuses do not perform “lab safety inspections”, although they may be inspected by individual programs for fire safety, biological safety, radiation safety, etc. Audits commonly find lack of safety training by PIs and research teams, lack of enforcement on PPE requirements, insufficient or improper safety equipment, and lack of follow-up on inspections.

Young said that UC’s challenge is to integrate safety management into the basic operation of research laboratories, a concept also championed by the ACS Safety Culture Task Force (pdf). If structure drives behavior, then it stands to reason that laboratory safety issues will more frequently be apparent at facilities without a strong safety culture. Unfortunately, Young noted that university EH&S lab safety is largely regulatory driven, not risk based. This is something the CLS is trying to change.

So what has UCLA done to fundamentally change its safety culture? Among other things, the University has appointed a new chemical hygiene officer (CHO), Petros Yiannikouros.

I had the pleasure of spending a number of hours with Yiannikouros during the recent ACS meeting in San Diego. I found him engaging, communicative, and fun to talk with (which makes him one of my new best friends). A native of the island of Cyprus, Yiannikouros is at UCLA at least partly because of its proximity to the ocean – he told me it is impossible for him to live more than an hour from water and an opportunity to fish. Upon a little research, I find that his background also includes serving as the Head Scientist in charge of Quality Control for the Carlsberg Brewery in Cyprus!

While he was unable to speak to the Sangji incident (it precedes his time at UCLA), Yiannikouros outlined some of the challenges he faces.  When asked what he believes makes a successful CHO, he stressed experience in the laboratory. Yiannikouros feels it is difficult, if not impossible, for a CHO to adequately manage safety in a research environment without clearly understanding the processes and procedures. With the emphasis at UCLA on the handling of reactive chemicals, Petros finds his experience in organic research to be invaluable, particularly in respect to the handling and use of organometallics.

The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) agrees with Yiannikouros. “A CHO should be able to interact with investigators as a peer and be able to understand what it is they’re talking about,” as well as know the various regulations involved, Cal/OSHA senior safety engineer Deborah Gold told my co-blogger Jyllian in 2010, when discussing why the agency felt a previous UCLA CHO was unqualified.

I certainly wish Yiannikouros luck at UCLA as he continues to help change the safety environment. It is clearly a challenge to get principal investigators to “buy in” to structured safety behavior, but it looks like Yiannikouros has the tools to do that at UCLA.

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