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Safe Conduct of Research

May 8, 2012, Volume 58, No. 33

People engaged in acquiring knowledge and discovering new scientific principles are morally bound to manage safety in their pursuits. In the past few years, there have been several tragic incidents that underscored the need to pay attention to safety. For example, a Yale undergraduate student was killed by a lathe while working in the chemistry department machine shop; at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) a research assistant died from burns received while working with a pyrophoric liquid; and a Texas Tech University student lost three fingers and suffered eye damage while conducting research on explosive compounds. Following basic laboratory safety principles and adequate training could have prevented these unfortunate incidents. According to the United States Chemical Safety Board that investigated the Texas Tech incident, a culture of safety is often missing in academic research.

In addition to a moral obligation, there are legal liabilities associated with disregarding safety. For the first time, felony indictments were issued against a faculty member for safety violations as a result of the lab fatality mentioned above. The Regents of the University of California were also indicted for felonies. Furthermore, Cal/OSHA fined UCLA $31,000 for not correcting deficiencies noted in internal safety inspections months before the fatality.

Penn, through administrative support functions, particularly the Office of Environmental Health Radiation Safety (EHRS), provides guidance and resources to assist in establishing and maintaining a safe workplace. EHRS cannot assure safety alone. Safety in a research or teaching laboratory, machine shop or art studio is a collaborative undertaking involving students—graduate and undergraduate, postdoctoral fellows, staff and faculty. Everyone must be actively involved to create a culture of safety at Penn.

No one wants an injury or accident to occur in his/her group. You can improve safety just by discussing it with people for whom you are responsible. Set an example by adhering to the safety requirements for your work area.  Castigate those who do not follow Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or flaunt safety practices. Encourage and reward those who report safety issues or concerns.

 While it is impossible to create a zero-risk environment in a laboratory, EHRS provides faculty and other supervisors the guidance and resources listed below to assist them in providing an environment free of recognized safety deficiencies: 

  • Provide lab coats, safety glasses and gloves to all lab users and aggressively ensure that they are used. Ensure that proper clothing is worn in the lab.  Shorts, sandals and other attire that leave the legs exposed are not allowed.  Do not permit unsafe behaviors in the lab to go unchallenged. Support lab members that wear proper safety equipment and challenge those that do not.
  • Keep lab safety training current. Graduate students and all lab staff must complete the Penn Profiler every year and complete all training assigned to them. Undergraduate students must complete similar training and be closely supervised when working in the lab. General lab/shop safety training, while important as a foundation is not enough. People must be trained to work safely with the hazards to which they may be exposed.
  • Identify high-risk activities in the laboratory and provide task-specific training. Document training in a lab notebook or other traceable manner. EHRS can assist you with training and risk assessments.  People must be trained to work safely with the hazards to which they may be exposed. Science is not static, so as procedures change, training about new hazards is warranted.
  • Develop SOPs for your laboratory/shop to serve as a reference to all personnel. SOPs are particularly important for high hazard work and also for tasks that occur infrequently. Keeping SOPs aligned with actual practices is vital to assuring safe teaching and research. Changes in procedures, e.g., scaling up, or working with new chemicals require a reassessment of the risks covered by an SOP.
  • Participate in lab safety audits. Assign your lab manager or senior graduate student or post doc as your safety officer to participate in the audit if you cannot attend and review audit results as soon as practicable.  Correct the deficiencies identified by the audit as quickly as possible and return the audit letter to EHRS as confirmation of completion.

Please discuss these issues with your group and colleagues, and don’t hesitate to contact EHRS with ideas on how to improve safety at Penn.

—Steven J. Fluharty, Senior Vice Provost for Research

—Matthew D. Finucane, Executive Director, EHRS

Almanac - May 8, 2012, Volume 58, No. 33