Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts on the intersection between academic freedom and research safety. I pointed out that newspaper story because I believe that this topic needs to be the subject of ongoing discussion in both the laboratory community as well as the academic Environmental Health and Safety profession in order for the safety culture gains we have made over the last 10 years to be maintained.
>Presumably the work in fluorine chemistry that has raised this matter has already been judged to have met that standard, and I am not convinced that it is up to the safety community to judge the work again.
In my experience this is a common, but often unfounded, presumption in a research setting. I have seen many situations where the research process has drifted from the original proposal and a laboratory is doing very different chemical work shortly
after a project begins. This drift often occurs under the radar of the institutional oversight process (including the PI of the lab) and with inadequate funding, as funders decide to only partially fund the work being proposed. Partial funding decisions often resulted in not being able to do the work that as proposed. I am facing this situation with a student internship project right now, so I recognize what a hard situation this can create for both the project leader and the students involved.
>Safety poses a similar challenge in the context of academic freedom, in the sense that it should not be used to ride roughshod over the fundamental right to do the work, yet still is an absolute requirement of it.
I don't believe that there is a "fundamental right to do the work". To me, this implies that the institution has given a blank check to its researchers to cover any unexpected costs that might arise in the course of their science. I often find that my role as the safety professional is to help develop a more realistic estimate of the cost associated with specific lab work than the best case scenario that research budgets are often built around. These new estimates are often necessary because of code requirements and regulatory expectations that are not part of the scientific planning done by the researcher. Again, I am facing this situation with a different project here on campus.
The other constraint on the "fundamental right to do the work" is that scientists have a corresponding "fundamental responsibility" to consider whether the safety support services that they are (often unconsciously) relying on are able to provide the needed services within the budgets they have been allotted. Stakeholders such as emergency planning and response services, the institutional waste disposal program, and ventilation system managers all have legitimate interests in assessing whether the work is being done in ways that conform to their plans and capabilities.
> it may be helpful to recognize that the academic may well be an expert in the specific materials and the nature of the risks associated with them (e.g. fluorine), while the safety professional is more of an expert in assessment of those risks.
At the same time, it is often necessary to recognize that the academic may not be an expert in transmitting this information to others, either in their work group or to the larger community. The 10th anniversary of the UCLA fire is a important time to remember that this possibility exists throughout academia.
While I agree that the best role for the institutional EHS professional is in support of the researcher's safety planning efforts, this role is productive only when the communication is a two way street and asserting "fundamental rights" often impede this communication. Meeting this challenge requires ongoing conscious effort and communication and I appreciate Paul's raising core issues that the EHS professionals need to address in our work.
My thanks again to everyone for sharing their thoughts on this topic.
Ralph Stuart, CIH, CCHO
Environmental Safety Manager
Keene State College
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