Legacy samples yield headaches
Sep09

Legacy samples yield headaches

Several safety breaches involving pathogens have brought attention to the problem of legacy samples. Vials of smallpox dating to the 1950s were discovered in unsecured Food & Drug Administation labs on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., earlier this summer. Then, last week, the Washington Post reported that NIH workers found ricin, the bacteria that cause plague, and other so-called “select agents” where they weren’t supposed to be. Meanwhile, FDA found staphylococcal enterotoxin in a lab that wasn’t supposed to handle it. Select agents are “biological agents and toxins have been determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to both human and animal health, to plant health, or to animal and plant products,” according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. There may be more coming: The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy has requested a safety stand-down in which government labs and nongovernment labs that receive federal funding are encouraged to do “an immediate sweep of their facilities that possess, use, or transfer human, animal, or plant infectious agent or toxin holdings to identify Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSA) and ensure their proper registration, safe stewardship, and secure storage or disposal,” according to an Aug. 18 memo. An Aug. 27 NIH notice says that its labs are conducting inventories of infectious agents and toxins. I’m sure all scientists can imagine what may have happened here: Someone left without clearing their bench or their lab. Someone else took over. Instead of cleaning out, they pushed the samples to the back of the fridge or storage area. Repeat. But someone, someday has to deal with it. Last year, the University of California, Davis, chemistry department cleaned out more than 10,000 lb of hazardous waste that had accumulated over decades, department safety manager Debbie M. Decker said in a talk at the ACS Meeting in San Francisco last month. Potentially explosive compounds filled a roughly 10 ft3 bunker, and it took about six months to get everything removed from campus for disposal, Decker said. So far, no one at NIH has gotten ill from the old samples. Nor was anyone at UC Davis hurt. But was it worth the risk not to clean out samples, reagents, or solvents sooner? Even if you think you might use something someday, will you trust that it’s still good by then? Delaying disposal often just makes cleaning out more expensive, too, especially if you can no longer read a label or something becomes potentially explosive over time, such as with diethyl ether...

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Safety compliance as a route to better safety culture
Jul11

Safety compliance as a route to better safety culture

One of the things that came up at the National Academy of Science’s “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” committee meeting a couple of weeks ago was the idea that safety compliance leads to a better safety culture. Many safety professionals say that a culture of compliance is definitely not the best safety culture. Compliance is about box-ticking on things like standardized training and lab inspections. A good safety culture means that people are thinking through, talking about, and paying attention to what they’re doing so they’re actually working safer. Compliance will come from a good safety culture, but a good safety culture will not necessarily arise from compliance. Others argue, however, that safety culture can be improved through compliance. “It’s worked well for us to develop our safety culture through ensuring compliance,” because the compliance component promoted interactions between researchers and safety professionals, said Robert Eaton, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California, San Francisco. That only works if those interactions on compliance are positive, I suspect. In an organization in which researchers do not respect or understand the role of safety staff, then compliance is unlikely to do much for the overall safety culture. But perhaps compliance is an essential step en route to a better safety culture? Maybe organizations need some sort of base-level safety compliance to be able to move people to the next level–maybe people can’t be brought to think critically about what they’re doing when they’re not even bothering with the basics of eye protection and closed-toe shoes. Representatives from Sandia and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories presented what they’re doing to push their organizations beyond what sounded like more of a compliance culture to more of a critical thinking culture. To the academics in the room, “You’re at a state we were at 20 years ago,” said J. Charles Barbour, director of the Physical, Chemical, & Nano Sciences Center at Sandia. Even if compliance culture is a necessary phase, though, perhaps academia can take advantage of the knowledge in industry and government labs to move people faster to critical thinking and safer work practices. One more meeting tidbit: Stanford University chemistry professor Robert Waymouth‘s suggestion for how to get recalcitrant faculty on board with lab safety programs was to appeal to their egos–in his words, their “desire for excellence”–with the explicit goal of being better than and informing industry rather than the other way around. (Along with, I hope, a desire not to have their lab members get hurt.) A final note: At the start of the open session, committee chair Holden Thorp noted that topics discussed during information-gathering do not necessarily indicate...

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