The statement of task for this study sets clear boundaries regarding academic chemistry research laboratories. However, it is worth noting that many of the same risks and hazards identified in this report exist under the same cultural constraints in other research communities within colleges and universities. Moreover, both research and non-research laboratories in non-academic settings may carry similar risks and constraints. Application of the analyses and changes suggested herein may be helpful in these other settings as well.
Clearly other research units in colleges and universities are affected by the organizational factors outlined in this report. Organizational structure, reporting relationships, evaluation criteria, funding and time pressures, workload, and workplace stress are not unique to chemistry research. It is paramount to safeguard the welfare of the students, staff, and faculty and to establish expectations and support systems that enable them to work safely. While the specific hazards of different research units may vary, the organizational and system processes remain the same. Therefore, many of these recommendations can be generalized to other research units within the academic sector.
While many industrial and non-academic research laboratories provide excellent examples of safety culture, it is also true that there are many that can benefit from these recommendations. The system processes that govern safety culture operate across contexts, and the need for careful consideration of whether institutional practices support safety is independent of the university/non-university context. Designing institutional systems so that they promote the ability of all individuals to take the actions needed to work safely is critical to the twin goals of promoting the nation’s scientific stature and the health and safety of the people who produce it.
If viewed as a system, these recommendations for improving the culture of safety can be applied broadly and can allow the greater community to solve problems while simultaneously advancing productivity, safety, and sustainability across a wide range of settings.
In response to the statement of task and building on the discussion in the preceding chapters, a series of findings have been identified, conclusions made, and recommendations presented. They are presented under four categorical headings: Institution-wide Dynamics and Resources; Research Group Dynamics; Data, Hazard Identification, and Analysis; and Training and Learning.
The broad institutional setting in which research takes place can strongly influence whether university laboratories develop and sustain a strong, positive safety culture. Specifically, the level of importance attached to safety by university leadership, the way these leaders promote safety as a core institutional value, the way they direct resources, and the structure of incentives and reporting relationships they support all affect the degree of priority given to safety practices. The list of findings, conclusions, and recommendations below address issues of Institution-Wide Dynamics and Resources.
Finding 1: Safety is emerging as a priority and a core value of many academic institutions and of individual laboratories. A strong, positive safety culture is more beneficial than a compliance-only culture.
Finding 2: A strong, positive safety culture is a core element in the responsible conduct of research.
Conclusion 1: If laboratory safety is an unquestioned core value and operational priority for the institution, then safety will never be traded for research productivity.
Recommendation 1: The president and other institutional leaders must actively demonstrate that safety is a core value of the institution and show an ongoing commitment to it.
Finding 3: The availability and commitment of university resources to laboratory safety vary across institutions.
Finding 4: Universities often do not provide sufficient incentives to promote a strong, positive safety culture. In some cases they may create barriers or disincentives.
Conclusion 2: University policies and resource allocations have a strong impact on a department’s ability and willingness to help provide for a strong, positive safety culture. If an institution or individual laboratory wants to develop and sustain a safe and successful research program, then it must consider the resources it has available for safety and explore research options and requirements accordingly.
Recommendation 2: The provost or chief academic officer, in collaboration with faculty governance, should incorporate fostering a strong, positive safety culture as an element in the criteria for promotion, tenure, and salary decisions for faculty.
Recommendation 3: All institutions face a challenge of limited resources. Within this constraint, institutional head(s) of research and department chairs should consider the resources they have available for safety when considering or designing programs, and identify types of research that can be done safely with available and projected resources and infrastructure.
Finding 5: There is a lack of clarity and consistency about safety roles and responsibilities across the university, particularly among faculty, researchers, and environmental health and safety personnel.
Recommendation 4: University presidents and chancellors should establish policy and deploy resources to maximize a
strong, positive safety culture. Each institution should have a comprehensive risk management plan for laboratory safety that addresses prevention, mitigation, and emergency response. These leaders should develop risk management plans and mechanisms with input from faculty, students, environmental health and safety staff, and administrative stakeholders and ensure that other university leaders, including provosts, vice presidents for research, deans, chief administrative officers, and department chairs, do so as well.
Many research groups have differential power dynamics, which, if not appropriately addressed, can work against the development of a strong, positive safety culture. Department chairs and principal investigators should take steps to change these dynamics, creating mechanisms that empower laboratory researchers to communicate freely about safety and take an active role in establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture and in sustaining a safe research enterprise. The list of findings, conclusions, and recommendations below address issues of Research Group Dynamics.
Finding 6: There is variability across academia with regard to the involvement of researchers at all levels in establishing and sustaining a strong, positive laboratory safety culture.
Finding 7: The deeply rooted hierarchy and highly competitive nature of academic research can inhibit the advancement of a strong, positive safety culture.
Finding 8: Students and postdocs are dependent on the principal investigator for their professional advancement. The power differential in this relationship may affect group members’ willingness to raise safety concerns.
Finding 9: Most researchers in academia are still in the early phases of their professional development. As such, they may not have the requisite knowledge and skills to recognize and understand the risks associated with their work.
Finding 10: Research is regularly performed independently (including during off-hours and alone) and may be carried out with limited or no oversight or feedback.
Conclusion 3: Contribution and engagement by both principal investigators and by researchers through an open and ongoing dialogue are critical to creating a strong, positive safety culture. Safety culture is more likely to be sustained when safety issues are discussed broadly and frequently as an integral part of the research training and development process.
Conclusion 4: There are several key attributes related to research group dynamics that contribute to the advancement of the laboratory safety culture. A strong, positive safety culture
- includes open communication about safety as a key element that is sought out, valued, and acted upon;
- values learning and continuous improvement with respect to safety;
- includes regular safety communication, for example, “safety moments,” in academic research events (e.g., seminars, group meetings, doctoral defenses, and teaching); and
- empowers student and research trainees to have a “voice” and maintain an environment that encourages raising safety concerns freely without fear of repercussions.
Conclusion 5: A research group with a strong, positive safety culture engages with environmental health and safety personnel collaboratively.
Recommendation 5: Department chairs and principal investigators should make greater use of teams, groups, and other engagement strategies and institutional support organizations (e.g., environmental health and safety, facilities), to establish and promote a strong, positive, safety culture.
Recommendation 6: Department chairs should provide a mechanism for creating a robust safety collaboration between researchers, principal investigators, and environmental health and safety personnel.
In addition to improving the organizational dynamics that drive safety practice, laboratories have a need for data and to conduct analyses that will help them identify and mitigate hazards. Traditionally, safety performance has been measured using lagging or after-the-fact indicators, such as numbers of accidents and lost-time injuries. To change behavior
and culture before an incident occurs, organizations may take advantage of leading indicators: before-the-fact data that can help identify risks and vulnerabilities ahead of time. One key approach to identify hazards before they cause harm is to report and collect data on near misses. Another way to identify hazards is to conduct hazard analysis, a process to assess risks and their consequences and ensure that they are mitigated or eliminated before any lab work is initiated. The list of findings, conclusions, and recommendations below address issues of Data, Hazard Identification, and Analysis.
Finding 11: Leading indicators from hazard analysis, risk mitigation, and best practices are not being widely used in laboratory safety planning. Often these data are not being collected for academic and nonindustrial laboratories.
Finding 12: Incident and near-miss data are important sources of information for driving improved safety performance and for monitoring progress. Such key data are often repressed or distorted when there is a punitive approach in response to incidents.
Conclusion 6: Information is a key input to establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture. Incident and near-miss reports are important learning tools for laboratory safety, but presently are not effectively reported, compiled, analyzed, and disseminated within the research community. To ensure that useful data are available, a change in reporting and the availability and sharing of information is necessary.
Recommendation 7: Organizations should incorporate nonpunitive incident and near-miss reporting as part of their safety cultures. The American Chemical Society, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and American Council on Education should work together to establish and maintain an anonymous reporting system, building on industry efforts, for centralizing the collection of information about and lessons learned from incidents and near misses in academic laboratories, and linking these data to the scientific literature. Department chairs and university leadership should incorporate the use of this system into their safety planning. Principal investigators should require their students to utilize this system.
Finding 13: Researchers may not understand or appreciate the hazards of chemical materials and procedures in their work. This may be
especially relevant for departments in which researchers typically have less training in chemistry (e.g., molecular biology, biochemistry, and engineering), yet often work with potentially hazardous materials or procedures.
Finding 14: Hazard analysis is not routinely incorporated into experimental designs, procedures, and records in academia.
Conclusion 7: Routine hazard analysis is a critical component in research planning and execution. It represents an element of a strong, positive safety culture. Comprehensive hazard analysis and the use of engineering controls are especially important for experiments that are new to the individual and/or are being scaled up.
Recommendation 8: The researcher and principal investigator should incorporate hazard analysis into laboratory notebooks prior to experiments, integrate hazard analysis into the research process, and ensure that it is specific to the laboratory and research topic area.
Training in safety practices—both initial training and ongoing mentoring and support—is an essential element in developing and sustaining a strong, positive safety culture. This is particularly important with researchers in academic labs, who are often relatively young and have limited experience. Entering (and even experienced) students may not know how to assess the risks of what they are doing, how to assess changes in risks if they change a key experimental parameter, or how to keep a small error from causing major problems. Moreover, they may not realize that a process they used in the past without apparent incident was out of the ordinary or dangerous. The list of findings, conclusions, and recommendations below address issues of Training and Learning.
Finding 15: Laboratory safety training is highly variable across institutions, departments, and research groups.
Conclusion 8: A high-quality training program is an important element of a strong, positive safety culture.
Finding 16: There is a lack of comprehensive, early, and individual-laboratory-centric training and education for researchers, principal investigators, and in some cases, environmental health and safety staff. Many
researchers arrive at a new institution or in a new laboratory without proper training or appreciation for appropriate safe laboratory practice.
Conclusion 9: Classroom and online training is necessary but not sufficient to ensure knowledge, skills, qualifications, and abilities to perform safely in a laboratory environment and to establish a strong, positive safety culture.
Recommendation 9: Department leaders and principal investigators, in partnership with environmental health and safety personnel, should develop and implement actions and activities to complement initial, ongoing, and periodic refresher training. This training should ensure understanding and the ability to execute proper protective measures to mitigate potential hazards and associated risks.