Friday, May 4, 2012

A raised eyebrow at UCLA's Center for Laboratory Safety

The venerable and wise Russ Phifer has posted a story on UCLA's Center for Laboratory Safety at The Safety Zone -- I encourage you to go and read the whole post. But I want to highlight one set of comments:
James Gibson, UCLA’s director of EH&S and the executive director of the CLS, has been on the road constantly promoting the center as well as UCLA’s overall response to the Sangji incident. Also promoting the center everywhere has been Erike Young, the EH&S director for UC’s Office of the President. 
This corresponds to a comment by UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, Kevin Reed in December:
Interviewer: In the written statement that was released, I believe it was yesterday, by UCLA media relations and public outreach, one of the biggest points that was made in that is that, since the time of this tragedy, that UCLA has really become a model for safety in laboratories. It created the Center for Laboratory Safety that other universities and research organizations now look to UCLA as a prime example of how to do this right.  
But should that really play a role in whether criminal charges are filed against the university or this particular professor, because that's based on what happened 3 years ago, not about the way the institution has responded to it since?  
Kevin Reed: But Larry, it absolutely plays a role in justice. It is what this institution has done to learn from this tragedy.  
It was the mandate of Chancellor Block after this tragedy that we would be a leader nationally and we, I believe, have become that leader nationally. Our EH&S director is called upon to lecture around the country on the lessons that we learned from this tragedy, our chemical safety plan is borrowed by institutions around this country, we've produced videos that show the safe handling of these kinds of volatile chemicals. 
Call me a cynic, but if an institution (say, UCLA) wanted to use money to avoid serious criminal penalties, isn't this exactly what they would do? You'd set up a new organization, throw a lot of money at it, get people with impressive-seeming resumes to run it and then you'd go around calling yourself "a national leader." (It's not like the AP's going to put out a ranking that will show that you're not in the top 25, right?) After a year or so of doing this, you'd get a lot of your fellow EH&S folks to write letters in support of UCLA to the Los Angeles County DA and mention, that hey, these folks have really learned their lesson and they're really good at this stuff now (NOTE: entirely my speculation.) It's exactly what I would do if make a big public show that I've learned my lesson.

In some sense, UCLA is in a bind: it seems like it's much easier to show the absence of a bad safety record than it is to show the presence of a good safety record. Substance on UCLA's safety record will only come over a long period of time, with statistical analyses that show that their near-miss rates went down significantly, or that they've passed a 5 year period (for example) without a serious incident. In the short term, they're left with the public relations stuff to show improvement, while cynics skeptical observers like me, well, observe skeptically.

What truly substantive things could the UCLA Center for Laboratory Safety do for the chemical safety community? Writing and corresponding in the chemical safety literature is a place when I think CLS could contribute (and probably seems to be right now.) Releasing a detailed internal analysis of what went wrong during the Sheri Sangji incident would seem to be the most obvious way to show contrition and a desire to improve. (Of course, the lawyers will never allow that anytime soon.)

Ultimately, the most substantive thing that UCLA and its new Center could do would be to ingrain a culture of safety in their students and postdocs to such a degree that upon leaving UCLA and joining a new organization, UCLA alums are immediately seen as safety leaders in their speech (and more importantly) in their actions. Sadly for UCLA, that reputational change can only come slowly.

7 comments:

  1. This is meaningless posturing. Exactly the same thing that happened after Jason Altom's suicide. UCLA will keep up the ruse to make it look like they care. Then in 10 years when the name Sheri Sangji has effectively been erased from the minds of grad students, funding for the CLS will conveniently not make the budget, thus restoring the status quo.

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  2. Just one raised eyebrow, eh. They've done nothing to deserve it outside of trying to cover their asses. This upsets me to no end. They're trying to fleece both the legal system AND academic chemists. This is so unbelievably frustrating. Show a little modesty. Show an understanding that it is your brazenness that got you into this trouble in the first place. Brazenness will not get you out of it.
    This makes me want to scream.

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  3. Unstable IsotopeMay 4, 2012 at 2:56 PM

    I'm not sure how you erase the statements made by UCLA basically blaming Sangji for her own death.

    BTW, when I was at the ACS meeting this incident came up in conversation and I have to say there is a quite a disconnect between industrial chemists and academic chemists on this case.

    I do applaud this effort by UCLA, though. I think it does show a seriousness that they lacked before. I hope it has every opportunity to succeed.

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    1. Not sure if you will see this but could you elaborate on this point? I'm a bit in the dark on what you mean.

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    2. Unstable IsotopeMay 7, 2012 at 10:10 AM

      The big difference with academia and industry is that academic chemists were surprised that Harran was being charged with a crime. They thought it was a tragic accident but also thought it was something that could have happened in their labs.

      Industrial chemists did not find it surprising that one could be held accountable for the actions of a subordinate.

      According to some conversations via Twitter it may be that academic chemists are not well-trained on legal obligations perhaps.

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  4. Undergraduate, graduate, post-doc then professor.... where in this line of academic and professional preparation is the academic educational part of health and safety, including lab safety? In which section shall it apply? The answer is that it shall apply to each section progressively. Who shall be held responsible? To answer this, let’s see the funding process...
    Would a fund granting institution be responsible for incidents and accidents? Short answer should be yes. If a funding institution provides grants to fulfill answers through experimentation, they should also implement rigorous and specific safety issues within the fund granting process to prevent repeating history. For example, that of Marie Currie unknowingly or knowingly working with hazards. Examples of high precautions without a full assessment of the potential hazards are nanoparticles, combustible dust and so forth...
    Standardizing can help but will not resolve the issue. Each funding institution must demand a working plan than INCLUDES safety measures and risk/hazard assessment. Starting with this, PI can be held responsible for proper training that can safely achieve a Nobel Prize (“ironically”). Who takes the credit of a Nobel Prize shall also take credit for safety in the process for achieving such prize. The loose ends of health and safety in laboratories start with the granting of funds. “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”.
    Though granting institutions include a section of hazards and precautions, they are very general. Also the methodology within the grant submission process is not necessarily the methodology used. The fund granting institute must be notified of such changes and permit changes only if a proper risk/hazard assessment has been performed and a risk/hazard control plan has been included and evaluated to deem it as viable.
    Fund granting institutions have the capability to implement a cultural revolution of continuous improvement at the bench. They can start by being more stringent in health and safety issues and planning within the funding request process. If funding is granted, workshops of health and safety can be held for the funded projects. Topics to include shall include basic concepts such as hierarchy of controls, good laboratory practices, creating a health and safety mindset. Intermediate workshops should include proper methods and procedures to prevent incidents or accidents according to the various hazard classifications of chemicals. More advanced topics should include specific and unique hazards. Once investigators and lab personnel have received adequate training, the information can be passed to other generations and a new mindset will exist; a mindset of health and safety inclusion at all levels.

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  5. “Learning to participate in this culture of habitual risk assessment, experiment planning, and consideration of worst-case possibilities—for oneself and one’s fellow workers—is as much part of a scientific education as learning the theoretical background of experiments or the step-by-step protocols for doing them in a professional manner. A crucial component of chemical education for all personnel is to nurture basic attitudes and habits of prudent behavior so that safety is a valued and inseparable part of all laboratory activities throughout their career.
    Beyond regulation, employers and scientists also hold themselves personally responsible for their own safety, the safety of their colleagues and the safety of the general public. A sound safety organization that is respected by all requires the participation and support of laboratory administrators, workers, and students. A successful health and safety program requires a daily commitment from everyone in the organization. To be most effective, safety and health must be balanced with, and incorporated into, laboratory processes. A strong safety and health culture is the result of positive workplace attitudes—from the chief executive officer to the newest hire; involvement and buy-in of all members of the workforce; mutual, meaningful, and measurable safety and health improvement goals; and policies and procedures that serve as reference tools, rather than obscure rules”. (App A 29 CFR 1910.1450)
    Why wait for another regulatory requirement to once more be out of compliance instead of initiating proper behavior and educational programs that protect the brilliant minds of scientists and potential Nobel Prize winner in benefit of humanity. The time to start is NOW!

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