Lab News / Lab Processes and Procedures

Are you safe in your laboratory?

Are you safe in your laboratory?Researchers feel safer than they actually are. That’s one of the preliminary conclusions of the recently completed international Laboratory Safety Culture Survey, a joint research project between BioRAFT, the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, and Nature Publishing Group

The important work going on in research laboratories around the world requires focus, dedication, and long hours at the bench, much of it in environments made inherently dangerous by materials, agents, animals, and equipment — and the very people who use them. It’s natural to hope that the safety of scientists within every laboratory takes precedence over all other objectives, but the pressure for academic institutions, big pharma, and biotech to continually produce while competing for investment, funding, and stockholder buy-in doesn’t readily take a back seat to any other priority. The truth is that most institutions don’t associate investments in improving safety and compliance with the top line until there’s an accident of such magnitude that it harms their personnel and reputation.

A recent spate of high-profile lab accidents at some major U.S. universities, the worst of which ended in fatalities, have prompted the research community to take a fresh look at the culture of safety. At some elemental level, researchers past and present know that laboratory culture doesn’t emphasize safety when it impedes key goals. Without a data-driven understanding of perceptions and practices, we can’t hope to map a strategy that will shift laboratory culture so that safety will be intrinsic to scientific discovery.

Taking important first steps toward this goal was the intent of the international “Laboratory Safety Culture Survey 2012,” whose results were released in January 2013. The survey, conducted last year by BioRAFT, the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, and Nature Publishing, is the first in a series of studies designed to gather the actionable empirical data needed to improve safety in research environments. Analysis of the data is still in its early stages, but some red flags have emerged.

For instance, 95% of the nearly 2,400 researchers surveyed reported that lab safety is very or quite important to them personally, with 86% stating that they feel their lab is a safe place to work. Yet 45% said they believed overall safety could be improved, a number that grew to 55% when respondents worked in larger laboratories.

Their belief seems to be supported by reported practices at the bench, as well as in the level of supervision they receive there. More than a third (35%) of respondents said researchers in their labs conduct experiments while alone on a daily basis, while 80% reported this happened at least once a week. In terms of oversight, 40% of supervised respondents said their supervisor does not regularly check how they’re working safely.

Moreover, the survey results show significant variance in safety perceptions among senior- and junior-level researchers. (For the purposes of the report, “senior” staff were defined as those with such titles as principle investigators, professors, senior industry researchers, research directors, department heads, VPs of research, CEOs, and chancellors, while “junior” researchers comprise undergrads, graduate students, and post docs.) The majority (94%) of senior researchers felt that appropriate safety measures were in place in their labs. But only 69% of junior researchers — who spend 40 hours of week in a laboratory environment on average compared to senior staff’s 22 hours — believe such measures were in place.

The data also revealed an apparent disconnect between respondents’ personal perception of their labs’ risk levels and those of their institution’s safety department/committee. About a quarter of respondents (24%) rated their laboratory’s risk as lower than their safety department/committee’s risk view. Another 15% said they didn’t know their safety oversight committee’s views on the level of risk within their labs.

Laboratories, with their blend of dangerous materials, animals, powerful equipment, and harried scientists, have always been fertile environments for accidents and injuries. When questioned about injuries and their severity, 30% of survey respondents said they were aware of at least one “major injury” — an incident serious enough to require medical attention — during their time in the lab.

What if injuries aren’t serious enough to require medical treatment? Prior to the survey, the lack of empirical data on injuries, accidents, and general slip-ups has made it impossible to get any handle on the state of safety in research. One troubling aspect of laboratory safety culture is that, for any number of reasons, scientists often don’t relay information on lower-profile accidents and injuries or situations where they see safety protocols breached.

Under the anonymity provided by the survey’s design, more than a quarter of respondents from the junior researcher sample (26%) said they sustained an injury that they did not report to their supervisor or principal investigator, with 15% saying this had happened once and 11% saying this had occurred on more than one occasion. Nearly the same percentage (24%) said they’d seen a colleague sustain an injury that wasn’t reported to higher-ups, with 12% saying they’d witnessed this on one occasion and 12% citing this had happened more than once.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the respondents from this sample — 48% — admitted to having seen a colleague break a lab safety rule or protocol but did not report it to their supervisor or principal investigator. Only 23% witnessed such an occurrence and went on to report it.

At the crux of the safety problem is education and training. Without institutional buy-in and ongoing investments in high-quality training programs, it’s impossible to ensure researchers meet all safety training and compliance directives. Ensuring this will be a critical component in changing the current culture and creating the safest working environments possible. Programs should be comprehensive and leverage comprehensive course catalogues, real-world and online training options, materials documentation, institutional policies, and tracking and reporting tools.

Researchers themselves appear to recognise the role safety training and education plays in creating safe laboratory environments. When asked to name the primary barriers to lab safety, 27% of survey respondents cited a lack of understanding of safety requirements, 20% cited the lack of and/or inadequate safety training, 11% named untrained staff, and 45% pointed toward time and hassle factors.

The time typically needed to meet lab safety training and compliance requirements is an ongoing problem plaguing the scientific community and its researchers. There’s no question that some kinds of safety training must be conducted by an instructor in a classroom or a PI in a laboratory setting, but conducting all training activities solely in a physical setting isn’t practical for busy university and industry scientists.

Traditional methods of tracking safety training such as spreadsheets, disparate tracking systems, and paper records are also time-consuming. Moreover, these approaches don’t provide the single, unified view of lab environmental criteria that oversight staff requires to serve training needs and improve laboratory safety.

From a comprehension standpoint, 91% of the survey respondents said they were aware of and understood the minimum training requirements for their lab duties, though 77% believed the same was true for other lab members. In terms of compliance and training, 83% of respondents agreed that they had received sufficient safety training to be compliant with rules and regulations related to their lab duties and 82% felt they had enough training to minimise the risk of injury to themselves and others in their labs.

However, respondents were less positive when questions drilled down to a more granular level: For example, 40% said they didn’t receive safety training on the specific agents and hazards they work with in their research.

As for timing of training, answers varied depending on the level of risk assigned to respondents’ laboratories by their safety department/committee. For example, 72% of respondents working in high-risk labs said that safety training was provided to researchers before they were allowed to conduct experiments, compared to 67% working in low-risk labs.

Across all lab types, 68% of those surveyed reported that training was provided before they could begin working on experiments, while 21% said training is provided within 30 days of starting such activities. About 16% said researchers don’t receive any training until they’re notified by safety staff, and 10% reported that they receive safety training only if they request it or if they’re notified by safety personnel.

Compliance with state and federal regulations and individual laboratory safety guidelines and procedures is an instrumental component in the effort to protect scientists from harm. However, meeting regulatory and other compliance measures, which shields institutions and research and safety personnel from fines, suspensions, pulled funding, and other punitive measures, doesn’t mean a laboratory automatically becomes a safe environment.

When asked if they perceived a direct correlation between safety compliance and the frequency of accidents and injuries in their labs, those survey respondents who had seen at least one major or minor injury were divided in their opinions. Though some believed there was a strong correlation, 26% of those who had seen at least one major injury during their time in the lab disagreed that following all safety procedures could reduce the number of this type of injury, while 37% of those witnessing at least one minor injury disagreed that minor injuries could be reduced.

There’s more: In naming what they perceived to be the barriers to lab safety, 26% of researchers cited leadership’s focus on compliance requirements over safety. And in terms of safety training, 41% believed that efforts were focused on teaching compliance requirements rather than on improving laboratory safety.

The partners involved in the Laboratory Safety Culture Survey will continue to mine its data and share findings and analysis with the scientific community. The goal is to take what we discover from this early-phase survey of researchers and, combining it with findings from future surveys of personnel throughout the research hierarchy and from other projects, feed an open-community pipeline geared toward establishing data-driven best practices for laboratory safety.

Thus far, one thing is clear: Those of us in the scientific community need to improve the culture of laboratory safety by working together to increase not only awareness, but buy-in by developing better processes and tools to reduce the “time and hassle” factors that currently impede progress. That buy-in must comprise a top-down and bottom-up approach to safety awareness and training. Without it, institutions can’t shield themselves from financial and reputational risk. Above all, they can’t adequately help protect their most valuable asset — their researchers.


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