Date: Mon, 22 Jun 2009 21:29:52 -0400
Reply-To: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Subject: Re: Serious Lab Incidents
Comments: cc: j_kemsley**At_Symbol_Here**, NEAL LANGERMAN
In-Reply-To: <3C91F92FAA574086A84677898DFEA5F9**At_Symbol_Here**CARBON>

On Jun 22, 2009, at 7:37 PM, NEAL LANGERMAN wrote:
> 1. Has anyone got any statistics on research lab accidents in  
> industry or academia, or alternative suggestions for how to  
> benchmark an individual or lab group safety record?

I can tell you that any statistics out of academia would be even more  
unreliable than those out of the Congressional Budget Office.

During my years as an undergrad, grad student, postdoc, and professor,  
I was first and second-hand witness to numerous accidents and  
incidents that nobody ever even *thought* of reporting.  Sink fires,  
hood fires, spills, waste disposal "events", safety shower activations  
and more.   Most of the time the supervisor was not even told/aware.

In my personal experience, the only incidents that ever got recorded  
were those that required a 911 call.  Or the time the EPA showed up  
for an inspection and found ten 5-gallon metal cans being used as  
waste containers, one of which was forming a puddle in the middle of  
the analytical laboratory.
> 3. Does anyone know of a situation in which a faculty member was  
> sanctioned as a result of a lab safety incident?

Never once heard of that, although the EPA did fine $25K for the waste  
violation - just the sort of penalty that really makes faculty members  
Not Like bureaucrats (for some fixed percentage of folks, the campus  
safety office(rs) fall into that category, alas).    And let's view  
that $25K fine in the context of the (regulatory feeble) OSHA fines  
for the UCLA about disproportionate response!

I have never heard of safety being a regular agenda item at faculty  
meetings or research group meetings at any of the four major  
universities I have had experience with, but there would be occasional  
discussions in the context of incidents or responses that were  
reported.   Once in a while, some sort of "initiative" would start,  
and that would peter out after a few weeks/months.  It's a lot like  
having home exercise equipment - one starts off with a good ideas and  
resolve and then after 3 months, it's unused and forgotten.

No faculty member I have ever known has thought he/she was endangering  
their students, and if you asked all of them, they would tell you and  
genuinely believe that safety was a high priority in their labs.   But  
the fact of the matter is that there are small subsets of folks who  
are religious about safety as well as those who are complete slobs  
(completely cluttered hoods, no know the ones).   The  
vast majority of faculty fall somewhere in the middle ground.  And  
never do you see a mechanism to do something about the tail end of  
that curve.

It has been LONG overdue for chemistry curricula to start *teaching*  
safety the way that industry handles it (and expects/desires students  
to be trained).   I am not aware of any department that has tried to  
instill a "culture of safety" throughout their curriculum, although  
there are some excellent individual attempts at doing so.   The core  
problem here is that safety is not directly a research or funding- 
generating activity, and (junior faculty, in particular) are  actively  
discouraged from doing anything that does not bring in the bucks,  
generate papers, or count towards P&T (promotion and tenure).  The  
problem is obviously greater at graduate-level schools and those  
departments with a lot of "dead wood" who are like a black hole for  
new ideas - they get the safety proposal and then the light never  

So, where/how do we even *begin* to change the academic attitude?  I'd  
say it has to start with the ACS and the accreditation process.   
Specifically, ACS-certified undergraduate programs should explicitly  
be required to  teach industrial best safety practices in their  
curriculum.  Students need to learn the expectations and ramifications  
("No PPE, newbie?  You're fired.") they will encounter in the "real"  
world outside academia.  Eventually, faculty teaching courses with  
this approach might start seeing The Light on the matter, and we can  
get the culture of safety to filter up to the graduate level.

Rob Toreki

Safety Emporium - Lab & Safety Supplies featuring brand names
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