International attitudes toward lab safety

International attitudes toward lab safety

Do we have a false sense of security regarding safety in our labs? A recent study commissioned by the UCLA Center for Laboratory Safety suggests that this may be the case. What are the problems, and what can we do to keep ourselves safe?

Injury statistics

Data from the UCLA Center for Laboratory Safety show that injuries are fairly common in lab settings, even though researchers report feeling relatively safe (“Safety survey reveals lab risks”, Nature). Here we report selected findings from this survey. You can hover over the charts to highlight rows or view the number of respondents for each question and answer.

Q: In the time that you’ve been conducting research in a laboratory setting, have you ever sustained an injury of any kind?

Q: What was the nature of your injuries?

These results show that most injuries occur from cuts or accidental needle sticks. These injuries could be avoided or at least abated by providing adequate training to minimize these risks, such as never reusing or re-capping needles and disposing of them promptly in sharps containers. There are still, however, a significant number of injuries due to chemical inhalation or chemical/thermal burns that could be addressed by proper use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Using PPE

Q: How often do you use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) if necessary for your work? (Hover your mouse over the pie charts for specific numbers of responders)

Although wearing PPE is usually required for procedures that could potentially be harmful, not everyone wears all their PPE all the time. In the UCLA survey, it was found that researchers are pretty good at wearing gloves (69% say they “always” wear them), but that they often choose not to don other potentially more specialized equipment, including eye goggles and respirators. However, by wearing such PPE they would lower the risk of injuries due to chemical inhalation, which is the 5th most reported type of injury.

Legal liability

One of the main points of contention in the case against Patrick Harran regarding the death of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, a research assistant in his lab, revolves around who is legally responsible when things go wrong in the lab. While the Environmental Health and Safety committee has documents delineating the chain of command, a tradition of task delegation from PI to graduate students, postdocs, and lab techs makes this a complex issue. It turns out that researchers don’t appear to be too sure who is liable either (35% responded with “I don’t know”).

Q: Who you do think is legally liable for accidents in your lab?


A culture of safety

Patrick Harran was strongly criticized in Cal/OSHA’s report for not explicitly determining how Sheri Sangji was trained. Unfortunately, it appears that supervisors vary widely in how often they check on their lab members to make sure they are being safe.

Q: To what extent do you agree with the following: “My supervisor/lab manager/PI regularly checks to make sure I am performing my laboratory duties in a safe fashion using proper safety equipment”?

To promote a culture of safety, everyone must be aware of their responsibilities, from those providing training to those receiving it. Sadly, one of the most widely reported “barriers” to improving safety in the lab was “apathy” — answers like “inadequate equipment” were far behind. This suggests that researchers need to take charge to make sure that they and others are working in and maintaining a safe lab environment so that tragedies such as those at UCLA can be prevented.

Q: What are the most significant barriers in improving safety in your laboratory?

What do you think? Do your experiences in the lab reflect the results of the survey? Leave your comments here.

Text and infographics credit: Liberty Hamilton