Lab security is not just for the big guys

In catching up with my reading of the Journal of Chemical Health & Safety, I was struck by the paper “Lions, tigers, and bears: Managing research security in academia,” by Maureen Kotlas, director of environmental health and safety at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I was particularly interested in the various regulatory requirements for development of security plans for laboratories, and it occurred to me that most of these requirements don’t actually apply, in particular, to smaller academic facilities.

Maureen lists DHS, DOT, NRC, USDA, HHS/NIH, CDC, and AAALAC as all having requirements to assess security measures in labs (please forgive the abbreviations – just spelling those out would take half a page!). Most of those requirements apply only to certain types of labs, particularly those with animals or doing clinical work. In fact, most academic laboratories would only have to deal with the DHS requirements, and then only if they have threshold quantities of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards.

So, what are the real drivers for chemical security in academic labs, and how secure are chemicals in academia? Having traveled abroad and visited chemistry departments in other countries, I don’t see any consistency in chemical security. Some labs have chemicals kept so secure there would appear to be no chance of theft, deliberate misuse, or vandalism. Others present almost an open invitation to anyone with a desire to blow up things, outfit an illegal drug lab, or poison someone.

The Kotlas article touts security devices such as key-card entry, pan-tilt cameras, and vehicle access control. All of those can be effective parts of a security plan, but most are likely too expensive for smaller institutions to implement. I see two general problems in the area of lab security. One is a lack of resources for many smaller colleges and universities. The second is a laissez-faire attitude that many facilities need to work to overcome. Security risk and vulnerability assessments are not difficult or necessarily expensive. A simple walk-through of facilities by someone who doesn’t work there but knows what to look for is a good start; I’d recommend the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety’s security vulnerability checklist for anyone who isn’t sure how to proceed or what to look for.

Author: Russ Phifer

Russ is a professional volunteer, active in ACS since 1982. He is the only History major (College of Wooster, 1974) to Chair an ACS Committee (Chemical Safety), Technical Division (CHAS), and Task Force (Laboratory Chemical & Waste Management). In his spare time he is Executive Director of the National Registry of Certified Chemists (NRCC), EH&S Manager for a printing plant (Chiyoda America, Morgantown, PA), and run his own environmental health & safety consulting and training firm (WC Environmental, LLC). Also active in local politics, he nonetheless enjoys spending time with his wife Molly and their five children.

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