Laboratory Safety Culture by Christopher Pettinato
"How do you get people to buy into safety?" This is the "$64,000" question being asked by the National Academies Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology (NABCST) following a preliminary review of the results of an international survey of researchers' workplace attitudes and practices regarding safety. Nature, which published the survey's preliminary findings in its January 2, 2013 edition (http://www.nature.com/news/safety-survey-reveals-lab-risks-1.12121), helped launch the survey on behalf of UCLA's Center for Laboratory Safety. The Center was established in 2011 following the death of a research assistant. This incident has been widely covered, mostly recently for the criminal charges filed against the Principal Investigator, and has forced scientists to reexamine their laboratory's safety practices. The survey, to-date the most comprehensive of its kind, was responded to by ~2,400 scientists, mostly from the United States and United Kingdom.
The baseline study revealed that while 86% of respondents stated that their laboratories were safe, roughly 50% noted that their laboratory had suffered work-related injuries and 30% reported having witnessed at least one significant injury requiring medical attention. Additionally, more than 25% reported sustaining an injury, which they had not reported to their supervisor. The results from some of the more specific questions in the survey indicate that safety standards are often not followed, with 50% of respondents agreeing that laboratory safety could be improved. Differences between junior (i.e., postdocs and PhD students) and senior scientists (i.e., professors, PIs and department heads) were also noted, with 40% of junior scientists stating that laboratory personnel worked alone in the laboratory on a daily basis, while only 26% of senior scientists reported this occurrence. The authors posit that senior scientists may not have a firm understanding of the safety culture in their own laboratory.
Truthfully, the scientific research and safety communities did not need the NABCST to ask the "$64,000" safety buy-in question. In fact the safety professional community has been asking this question, albeit somewhat informally, for decades. The answer inevitably informs us that safety must be a part of the fabric of an organization for buy-in to occur at all levels, and that in fact, safety must be a priority at all levels of an organization for it to be relevant. For safety to be a priority at all levels, EVERYONE in the organization must play an active role in establishing, fulfilling and reinforcing responsibilities for themselves and for their colleagues. This means continuous dialogue with all stakeholders and self-policing of institutional policies and standards, coupled with periodic benchmarking by safety professionals or safety-savvy senior scientists. While we pause to take a look at our own safety fabric, NABCST will be partnering with behavioral scientists later this year to develop practical guidance for researchers on how to establish a better safety culture and attempt to more formally answer the "$64,000" question.
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