- What’s the responsibility of the principal investigator, the scientist leading the research project and, in most cases, heading the lab?
- What’s the responsibility of the staff research assistant or technician, doing necessary labor in the lab for a paycheck?
- What’s the responsibility of the graduate student in the research group, trying to learn how to do original research and to master the various skills he or she will need to become a PI someday? (It’s worth noting here that there’s a pretty big power differential between grad students and PIs, which may matter as far as how we apportion responsibility. Still, this doesn’t mean that those with less power have no ethical obligations pulling on them.)
- What’s the responsibility of the institution under whose auspices the lab is operating? When a safety inspection turns up problems and issues a list of issues that must be corrected, has that responsibility been discharged? When faculty members hire new staff research assistants, or technicians, or graduate students, does the institution have any specific obligations to them (as far as providing safety training, or a place to bring their safety concerns, or protective gear), or does this all fall to the PI?
- And, what kind of obligations do these parties have in the case that one of the other players falls down on some of his or her obligations?
Here's how I would structure things (and how I have seen things structured in the past):
The principal investigator: The PI is ultimately responsible for running a safe lab. The best way to ensure that is to directly train the most senior members of the lab, to "train the trainer." From that point forward, the PI needs to ensure that senior graduate students and postdocs have a training and mentorship role in chemical safety and are properly executing that role. The PI should set up a safety/maintenance program, lay out the program and the responsbilities in clear, simple terms. The PI has the most prominent enforcement role; walking into their lab, they should spot safety problems and ask that they be corrected immediately. The PI has the most prominent foresight role; they should be able to see incoming safety problems from new chemistry, procedures or policy and be able to respond appropriately.
Postdocs and senior graduate students: Postdocs and senior graduate students (having been previously directly mentored by the PI) should be responsible for setting the day-to-day safety tone of the laboratory. They should be good examples and resources for newer lab members. While not directly responsible for the safety of younger graduate students, they should have a prominent advisory role and be willing to intervene (to the point of contacting the PI, if necessary) in order to keep lab members from doing egregiously unsafe things. They also have a foresight role, in that they should also be able to spot incoming safety issues and note them with the other group members.
Younger graduate students: They should be responsible for finding out and understanding the chemical safety risks they are taking on in their work. They are responsible for asking if they don't understand an issue and making sure that they don't proceed blindly. They also have the uncomfortable responsibility to question and/or dissent if they're being asked to do something unsafe.
The institution: The institution is ultimately (legally) responsible for the safety of its students; they're also the only administrative check on the power of the PI. If the PI cannot run a safe laboratory, they are the only people who can intervene. The institution has not discharged their responsibilities if they merely point out safety deficiencies without following up. The institution (via the EH&S office) has the responsibility to supply both basic chemical safety training (e.g. helping the PI develop a chemical hygiene plan) and for providing a 3rd party for graduate students and postdocs to turn to.
What if things don't work well? That's a problem with the way I've structured things: this system works well when you have a good PI. If you don't, well, that's an issue. While the institution may have the legal and/or ethical responsibility to intervene, I have a difficult time imagining a situation in which they can or will.
I'm not sure this answers Professor Stemwedel's questions in a satisfactory manner, but it's definitely how I see things. Readers, am I crazy?
*Thanks for DM for the correction of grammar.