Committing to Lab Safety Culture, from the Top Down

Top DownA few weeks ago, we read a very thought-provoking American Chemical Society editorial by Carolyn Bertozzi. The ACS aims to “be the world’s most trusted source of the comprehensive knowledge needed to cultivate the chemists of tomorrow” and we think that articles like Bertozzi’s certainly pave the way toward that goal.

What resonated most with us about this editorial, is the focus on how lab safety culture needs to be embraced and enforced from the top down.

Focusing Beyond the Accident Spotlight

As Bertozzi outlines, 2016 saw too many serious laboratory accidents. From China to Germany, North Dakota to Texas, researchers and students have been killed or injured in a variety of explosions that have been costly on too many levels. April was a particularly deadly month, with 42 people killed and 147 injured because of a massive fire at Jubail United Petrochemical in Saudi Arabia and an explosion at a Pemex vinyl chloride plant in Mexico.

The ACS editorial quickly moves beyond the headlines, however, to ask serious questions about how researchers can focus more purposefully on lab safety practices. Focusing on academic institutions, it lays out some ideas that are critical for safety in any research lab, no matter the industry or circumstance.

Implementing a Lab Safety Culture

The article suggests that the needed “ingredients for a positive safety culture” is a top-down commitment to lab safety. Bertozzi quotes George Whitmyre, a retired lab safety specialist, who says that “laboratory safety programs only work when [there is] serious commitments from Regents, Presidents, CEOs, upper management, and even PIs.”

Various steps are suggested that leaders can take to embrace and enforce a lab safety culture. These include:

  • Reading MSD sheets prior to setting up any experiment
  • Discussing specific safety elements with everyone involved and assessing the potential risks of each experiment
  • Consulting with health and safety experts whenever a doubt or question arises
  • Reviewing procedures (what to do, whom to notify) in case an accident occurs
  • Wearing personal protective equipment
  • Never working alone in any research lab

Making Lab Safety Everyone’s Responsibility

PIs do have a lot of responsibility when it comes to creating and implementing a lab safety culture, but they are not the only ones. Lab safety needs to be everyone’s responsibility in order to prevent the types of horrific accidents that occurred last year. Regardless of where you fall in the organizational structure, lab safety is your responsibility.

Here are some ways that Bertozzi believes this can be accomplished:

  • Publicly prioritize safety
  • Never condone lax or unsafe practices
  • Start every meeting with a “Safety Minute” that includes both news on accidents and information on new safety ideas
  • Teach how to implement Integrated Safety Management
  • Employ highly skilled EH&S personnel and encourage them to interact collaboratively with lab personnel
  • Accept responsibility for systemic failures
  • If you work in an academic setting, where you are training the next generation of researchers, hold hands-on sessions to introduce lab safety techniques

Leverage Your Position

Regardless of your place in the hierarchy of your lab, it’s up to you to do whatever is in your power to make decisions that will contribute to strengthening the culture of safety. If you write the schedules, take the necessary steps to ensure no one is ever in the lab alone. If you stock the supplies, make sure there is never a shortage of personal safety equipment.

Naturally, we would add one thing to Bertozzi’s list:

  • Furnish your lab with dedicated lab furniture

If you’re the person who furnishes the lab, making informed decisions about the quality and safety of the dedicated lab furniture you purchase can go a long way in protecting the life of your instruments as well as the lives of those working in your lab.

Get in touch with us today to learn more—because in order for Bertozzi’s ideas to work, everyone needs to take ownership.