From: Jeffrey Lewin <jclewin**At_Symbol_Here**MTU.EDU>
Subject: Re: [DCHAS-L] School labs vs industrial. Was: Undergrads in research labs - restrictions?
Date: September 14, 2012 9:49:32 AM EDT
Reply-To: DCHAS-L <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**MED.CORNELL.EDU>
Message-ID: <CAA4EBLv=aMBByL_7vkmFcd7_zCtEL2wNFfcmpMf7a9mhb4-xzw**At_Symbol_Here**>

With 20 years working in academia (staff member in biological sciences and former graduate student of this department) I'd like to take a little different tact on this discussion:

The notion that working after 5:00 is "poor planning." Long and short, but the reality of a students schedules (both undergraduate and graduate)- taking classes, teaching, other academic commitments, etc. makes working after 5:00 often a preference. Combine that with biology - culturing, prep required before staring an experiment, living organisms and multi-step procedures even if you wanted to stick to a 8-5 schedule you often can't. It is 8:30 right now and here on the floor where my office is located - 5 biochemistry/molecular biology/microbiology labs it is dead quiet except for a few early bird faculty. Tonight at 8:30, and yes even on a Friday, this floor will be humming with activity.

The notion that working on "hazardous" activities should be limited to 8-5. Not withstanding my paragraph above, I do recognize that there are additional staff (me, custodial, trades) working during the day and that does increase the chance of catching an emergency. But, there are plenty of spaces on this campus that don't get a "regular" walk throughs were if someone is injured nobody would know that they are there. And, while conducting a new, novel, hazardous experiment at 2:00 in the morning might not be advisable, as I note above, there is plenty of activity on most of the floor into the late evening for routine tasks. Plus, we do have a 24/7 campus police department that is able to respond to an incident.

On our campus undergraduates get a different level of attention, primarily from a liability and publicity point of view. While the notion that an undergraduate doesn't have the same training and experience as a grad student or staff may be true, they often are better trained for a specific task. A 4th year undergrad who's been running some experiment in the lab for a 2 semesters probably has an advantage over the new wet behind the ears grad student...especially if coming into "sink or swim" "learn on the fly" environment I've historically seen in some laboratories.

Of course this background and excuse making isn't really the point. I'd argue:

All experiments need to be evaluated for their hazards to the user. Those hazards need to mitigated and explained to the user and it shouldn't matter if it is an undergrad or a post-doc that user needs to understand what those hazards are and how to managed them.

If a hazardous activity requires a "buddy" system, additional oversight or additional staffing then that activity needs to be scheduled when the additional people are available. It doesn't matter if its 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning.

I apply this to students working for me. I generally require them to work during the hours I work (or, if I'm out for the day, when our departmental office is open). This is primarily due to the changing nature of their work (I'll have a list of that days tasks). For those students that are trained in non-hazardous routine tasks, i.e dishwashing, greenhouse caretaker) I will sometimes allow them to work outside the 9-5, M-F work week (plants have to be watered on weekends). Since they don't have the opportunity to check in and out with me or the office I ask that they set up their own "buddy" system with roommates, significant others, etc. I make it clear that they need to have a check in system so that if they fall and knock themselves unconscious they're not lying there until Monday morning.

Over the last 20 years I think safety in our Department has improved significantly. I would say that most of my faculty want to be safe. But for any activity there are limitations to time, talent and money. Like many universities, ours has pushed more and more routine tasks down to the department and further down to the faculty. Safety isn't unimportant, it just competes with the myriad of other tasks that a faculty member has to do and, unfortunately, doesn't always get the attention it needs or deserves.

Jeff Lewin
Biological Sciences
Michigan Technological University

On Fri, Sep 14, 2012 at 8:21 AM, Kim Auletta <kim.auletta**At_Symbol_Here**> wrote:
To add to this list of challenges for us in academia to overcome:

1. More than 1/2 our labs are "bio". The use of chemicals is incidental to their experiments/work. Most of the laboratory staff don't consider the majority of these chemicals as hazardous. Their focus is on their bio material and maintaining cultures that do not get contaminated. We also have engineering labs that use chemicals as incidental to their work.

2. An industrial/commercial facility has everyone working for the same goal - make a product that they can sell and everyone keeps their job. We have essentially 1000 different start-up companies of 2-10 people all working for individual goals (their own research money, degrees, papers, recognition).

Kim Gates Auletta
Laboratory Safety Specialist
Environmental Health & Safety
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794-6200

On Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 5:05 PM, ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**> wrote:
On Sep 13, 2012, at 3:13 PM, ACTSNYC**At_Symbol_Here** wrote:
* 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.

In summary, there's just a few reasons, just ***off the top of my head***. It goes so way far deeper than this. We could all collaborate and write a book. Wait, it's been done. A big round of applause for everyone who participated in that!

Rob Toreki

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