From: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Subject: [DCHAS-L] School labs vs industrial. Was: Undergrads in research labs - restrictions?
Date: September 13, 2012 5:05:46 PM EDT
Reply-To: DCHAS-L <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**MED.CORNELL.EDU>
* Just what is it about a school laboratory as opposed to an industrial one that justifies putting a price on life this way?
Justify? Nothing. Explain? It's a lot of things. I suppose the question could be restated as "Why is academic culture not a safety culture despite our best efforts?" Our discussions on the list and at the ACS Philly meeting have hit a lot of these points lately, but I will try to summarize and add a few more thoughts. These are *generalized* and may not apply at all schools - and not all industries are paragons of safety, either.
1. Transient nature of the workers. Professors generally stop working in the lab after a few years - they are consumed by the almighty funding quest, teaching etc. He/she trains the first couple students, those students train the incoming ones, and a giant game of telephone ensues. The result is that people learn procedures that are not entirely safe or downright dangerous because SOP's are either not established, updated, or consulted. And, gotta love this, that original professor who started the chain probably learned all his/her skills the same way. I mentioned a specific example on the list previously - every student in the lab I worked in (including myself) had been taught the incorrect way to syringe t-BuLi and every one of us thought it was correct at the time even though the Aldrich bulletin had another way.
2. Immortality. Most of the students, postdocs, and young faculty aren't old enough to seriously appreciate the consequences of a safety screwup in the lab. Unless you have witnessed a horrific accident, had an underwear-changing near miss, gone to the E-room in the middle of the night sure you were having a heart attack, or had kids who would be orphans if things went wrong, you generally don't tend to tune in that it Really Can Happen To You.
Industry has the same problem, but they solve it with enforceable policies. Do This and you're fired. Don't Do This and you're fired etc. In my academic career I've seen students pushed out of PhD programs for poor academic performance, poor research, plagiarism, personal issues etc., but I have never heard of anyone being forced out or sanctioned for safety issues. Perhaps that's something that should never happen - safety should be about education/improvement/partnership/support rather than blame, but with the UCLA prosecution that whole paradigm is on the brink of seismic shift.
3. Complacency/familiarity. The more you work with something, the less dangerous it seems. You may take every precaution using n-BuLi the first time, but use it enough and you'll start becoming complacent. After you get some on your hand and it doesn't do anything but feel soapy, or you quench a big reaction without incident, you start to cut corners or not use the required PPE. Then comes the day when your scaleup runs away thermally and you don't have an ice bucket, or it's humid and it does catch fire in air. The first couple times you use a dichloromethane wash bottle and get some on your hand, you worry about it, but after a while you're hosing organic gunk off your hand with it.
Industry has the same problem, but in different ways and to a lesser degree. Changes in scale (Texas Tech, UCLA) occur less often and in many cases expertise is available for the engineering/safety challenges of scaleup. Procedures are more repetitive, and therefore you can draw boundary lines - cut this corner and you're fired etc.
4. Unfamiliarity/number of chemicals. Investigative research requires that you buy and use a lot of different chemicals, many of which you have probably never used before. New toxicity, reactivity, storage, compatibility etc. issues all arise, and a busy grad student may not feel compelled or inclined to investigate these - all while buying the 500 mL bottle instead of the 25 mL one because it's only a few dollars more. To most grad students and amine is an amine, they are all the same. That student might not ever realize a particular diammine crosslinks your DNA.
Again, except perhaps for industrial research, the number of chemicals is far lower. Most places don't want to create and hold onto a storeroom of chemicals that you want to keep on hand "just in case" you happen to need some and can't wait 2 days for your Aldrich order.
5 No formal reporting/corrective mechanisms. When a safety problem comes up in industry, that carries all sorts of direct consequences (workman's comp, down time, lost profits, OSHA worries, whistleblower fears, lawsuits, bad publicity). Corrective action is generally straightforward - fire an employee, make a new rule, post a sign, put a new guard on a machine, whatever.
I've witnessed dozens of near misses and minor accidents in academic labs. I have never been at a school where identifying, reporting, and correcting them was encouraged, let alone even considered. Most go unreported because folks fear being punished or restricted. Which is sad, because one person's near miss could be a lesson that saves someone else from a direct hit. Bringing up safety matters will not earn you tenure - and it could even cost you it because professors should be "focused on research and getting grants" (yes, we all know that safety is an integral and non-removable component of research).
I suppose that the one thing that could go the furthest in changing the academic world would be a safety rewards program. Maybe DCHAS needs to develop a model rewards program just like there are model CHP's and the GHS model. More on that some other day.
6. God Complex/blindness. Certain PI's and researchers will simply not take safety information/advice rules from someone else seriously. "I'm a PhD chemist and I think I know how to handle chemicals safely, thank you very much." We've had discussions here about that one. Then there are those who really do believe they are taking safety seriously but have glaring issues in their lab. Their students wear goggles all the time, there is proper signage and whatnot, but there's four waste bottles (two unlabeled) in the cluttered hood with wires hanging down in front of it. This goes back to # 3 in the end.
7. Inertia. "That's the way things have always been done and we haven't had any problems." This goes up the administrative chain as well. The recent spate of horrid academic accidents has, perversely, put our community into a unique position - we can actually get attention to address long standing issues that administrations formally would have been reluctant to address or spend money on.
8. Dysfunctional organization and/or poor leadership. This is more on a department by department or institutional basis. We all know it happens, but I'm trying to address things we can directly affect/effect.
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