Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A UC system lab safety training anecdote: don't learn, just click the correct button

From the comments at ChemBark, a former postdoc at Cal talks about the post-Sangji safety training: 
In our lab, on the first day a new member starts, they are expected to read (and sign) over *a hundred* SOPs (standard operating procedures), each of which is often over ten pages long. How many people do you think read a thousand pages of technical material on that first day? Nobody has, and nobody ever will. 
Next up is the $40,000 “Laboratory Safety Fundamentals” online video. All you have to do is skip to end of each video and answer a multiple choice quiz. You’ll get it wrong the first time, but it will tell you the right answer. Load it up again, and in 10 minutes you are finished without a single thing learned. 
My supervisor was actually pretty good about pointing out the safety shortcomings of our group. The real problem? He was never around. What I never saw happen was another student point out where a peer wasn’t behaving safely. Yes, everyone wears PPE now – but only because we don’t want to be blamed when the lab gets fined.
This is a fundamental problem of online safety training -- it's not very engaging. I don't know what to do about it. Maybe a version of ORI's interactive movie "The Lab", but oriented to bench-level laboratory safety (rather than research ethics) would be the way to approach the issue.

15 comments:

  1. I find it amusing, on second thought, that I point out faults one set of online safety training, yet point to another version of online training. Maybe it needs to be human-based? Hmmmmm?

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  2. Online training is a joke. My PI gives a hour to two hour long talk about safety to incoming first years. It's engaging enough and tries to cover important points: use cannulas, use larger syringe to avoid pulling close to where the plunger will come out, luer lock syringes instead of luer tip, etc. The highlight is always the proper way to transfer large (>10ml) volumes of pyrophoric or air sensitive materials - cannula under positive pressure measuring with a graduated cylinder under nitrogen. Even with this talk there was a student who decided to measure out ~40ml of tBuLi with a glass syringe that then seized. The safety training in the Sangji case doesn't seem to have been thorough enough, but sometimes even with the training people still do really ill-considered things.

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    1. Yeah, that's truly a problem. How do you separate out the people who will do unwise things even when they have been told not to? If they persist, do you go to the trouble of throwing them out on their ear?

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    2. Perhaps we need a new grade added in addition to Failure - Academic Dishonesty.

      Failure - Future Darwin Recipient? or Failure - Too Stupid to Work Here?

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  3. Yes, institutional EH&S training should be as engaging as possible. But the limits of institutional EH&S training also need to be acknowledged--it is inherently and necessarily general. It is not meant to address lab-specific concerns--the laser jocks don't need to hear how to handle pyrophoric reagents, and the synthetic chemists don't need to hear about biosafety. Responsibility for project-specific safety training lies with the labs doing the research.

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    1. Safety comes not from training, but from implementation, adherence, sustained effort and enforcement (as required).

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    2. Granted. All that is still properly and best done within lab groups--a PI and his or her lab members are the experts on what they're doing, and they're the ones there every day. EH&S can provide oversight and assistance but can't be expected to be everywhere and know everything all the time.

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    3. How long have you last been in a large operating academic lab? PI is not even in town most of the time, and it's a cold day in hell he will be caught in the lab. Lab itself is operated by postdocs and budgeting/grant/paper preparation is done by PI's personal assistant (with a Ph.D). The lab is teeming with people from other groups - large groups need large projects which in turn require involvement of people with different background. So your lab will have 2 grad students from downstairs playing with your CVD setup and postdoc from physics department helping them to set up the experiment in LabView, while your own people are across the hall because that's where DNA synthesizer ended up, and so on and so forth. And you are going to argue "states' rights"?

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    4. I imagine a more common problem with EH&S is a lack of knowledge. I heard about a synthetic group whose lab flooded after the lab above had a fire. EH&S warned them about the dangers of a can of stabilized ether - not the sodium THF still or the kilogram worth of sodium hydride setting on top of a cabinet. That kind of lack of knowledge doesn't really engender the respect an EH&S needs to be effective.

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    5. @Anon 10:38 - same thing at Illinois, my graduate alma mater. The EHS people picked random things to care about, like every lab had sharps containers for used syringes, and all vacuum pump exhausts were connected to the ventilation system. It looked silly to have these precautions alongside far more dangerous things that were condoned, like people working without PPE or dumping waste down the sink.

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    6. Having been a Chemical Hygiene/Safety Officer at times I have worked with internal and external EH&S and I think the last couple comments are somewhat unjustified, although must admit shared similar perspective once about lack of proper focus. Jyllian well points out EH&S training rarely has much on lab specific setting and most people of that background only have undergrad lab exposure. However as they are often front line contacts with Fire/State/OSHA Inspections they know those items mentioned (Ether, Sharps handling, pump exhaust, plus PPE and Waste too) that working chemist might consider trivial by comparison to chemical dangers around are regulatory hot buttons that if violated can lead to fines/lab shut downs. It may be typical bureaucratic insanity but most EH&S are responding to what Inspectors look for and try to protect the lab people from citations so can not be held to blame for that priority selection IMO. In terms of greater hazards in the lab it should indeed be part of the chemists responsibilities, individually and collectively, to educate EH&S about such higher risk elements actually present as most will then be aware that should pay attention to such things. We used to conduct annual facility inspections as a team with EH&S plus reps form functional or lab areas that helped all of us approach from different angles. Too often EH&S seen as "bad guys" but have a tough job and in many cases

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  4. Bunny on Nite ShiftJune 25, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    Having been on both sides of the aisle - working for EH&S and now as a department safety manager - it's difficult from both perspectives to encourage PIs who are disinclined to take a more active role in setting the tone in the laboratory. Many PIs in the department are available and involved in the day to day of research in the lab. Some notables are not, however, and the lab behavior and compliance with the most basic health and safety requirements is a struggle.

    As to online training - in my role in EH&S, I provided instructor-led training for years. Providing training a couple times a month, I could reach maybe 1,500 folks a year or so. With a population ten times that who needed training, there just wasn't enough time to do it. Hence, online training has been introduced. The point Jyllian makes above is true - the general training was never intended to be substitute for hands-on specific training in the lab and I made a point to discuss that.

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  5. This all sounds very familiar to me as a graduate student at a non-UC major research university. I’m not in chemistry, but many members of my department end up working in chemistry labs, so we also have to go through safety training.

    The training is given in person, but having an instructor reading off one of these slideshows is not much better than reading it yourself. From what I recall, the slides were full of grisly stories of people dying from working with chemicals but very short on practical information. (My lab group has all been through the same training but are not chemists. Among other things, this meant that I eventually realized none of us knew where we should be putting the sash on a fume hood. I had to ask a chemist friend from undergrad.)

    To make things worse, my department gives safety training upon entering. Most graduate students in the department TA for their first school year and only join a research group in the summer. The safety training was not repeated when we finally started research eight months later. This also meant none of us had the experience during the presentation to ask useful questions.

    My lab group required additional training to use the facilities. It sounds like this was the same online quizzes the UC system is using, again with no reading comprehension actually required. And again, there was never a basic practical course on how to handle chemicals or operate fume hoods.

    Somehow we have avoided a major chemical accident in my time here. I’m not sure how. We don’t work with the most dangerous chemicals, but we do a lot of semiconductor processes, which require a lot of nasty acids. I’ve repeatedly had to tell people to stop putting their heads in the fume hood “to get a better view”. Worst case was the student who was doing it to check on his process using about a gallon of HF.

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    1. "I’ve repeatedly had to tell people to stop putting their heads in the fume hood “to get a better view”." Ah yes I am amazed at how many lab chemists I have seen that never seem to have gotten (or absorbed) proper rudimentary training in how to work in a hood. Besides excess physical entry generally seen lack of keeping the sash down either as barrier between performing reaction set up etc and ones body or simply closing as semi-contained environment when working elsewhere. I think it is now fairly common for hoods to have alarms that sound if doors left open for more than a couple minutes, which can be annoying however may be necessary reminders for some.

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  6. Such perfunctory training programmes are simply not good enough when working in a hazardous environment such as a laboratory as they don't ensure competence, only awareness (and even then this claim is dubious). Regardless of legal requirements I think it is a moral imperative that when you are managing someone and putting them to work you should be satisfied that you have ensured that they are competent to carry out that work. That is a combination of training, experience and what level of supervision they require.

    I find it quite simply astounding that some PIs think it is okay to send someone into the lab to handle pyrophorics for the first (few) time(s) with next to supervision and only some on-line or verbal awareness training instruction.

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