Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ask CJ: how to improve safety culture as a new lab member?

From the inbox, a great question about how to change safety culture from a postdoc we'll call "QV." QV writes the following:
...I'm trying to figure out the best way to improve my lab's safety goggle compliance; in grad school, we had it impressed on us early and often that lab glasses were not the exception but the rule.  
In my new group, though, there hasn't been that sort of pressure and I am the only one who wears safety glasses, with others citing their normal eye glasses as acceptable eye protection. I know from experience that, even with side shields (which these folks don't use) regular eye glasses are seldom enough--luckily this group has never had a big accident, but it means that the importance of *proper* eyewear was lost on them. What should I do about trying to get the lab into the habit of using proper PPE, especially as a newcomer?
I don't have a lot of advice for QV, but here goes:
  • Lead by example.
  • Build rapport with your coworkers. 
  • Find ways of helpfully contributing by taking responsibility for safety issues in your group. 
  • Over time, talk to your PI about ways of improving safety in the group, maybe after you feel you're "a group member." 
In this case, I think it would be helpful to build relationships with coworkers and show that you can be a resource before you can successfully get them to change their behavior. Maybe I'm wrong.

Readers, what do you think? I think my approach could be called the "hearts and minds" approach - too soft, do you think? 


  1. "I think my approach could be called the "hearts and minds" approach - too soft, do you think?"

    Not really. I am assuming that Kissinger's approach - "Anything that flies on anything that moves" - might not be too effective here. It's a tough problem since you don't want to be seen as the upstart outsider who wants to disturb the status quo. My suggestion would be to have a discussion with the PI that gradually trickles down through him/her to the group.

  2. Ask the PI for permission to buy a bunch of different models of safety glasses and bring them to group meeting. Don't buy them from Fisher or VWR, just find some that are appropriately rated. I won't plug the website I like unless a quick search doesn't turn up anything you like. Let people choose some good ones. University stockrooms tend to stock only the huge bulky ugly uncomfortable ones. There are much better options out there. Make compliance easy and comfortable and it will happen.

  3. Find out your school's policy on paying for prescription safety glasses. If they pay for them, take the lead to find out where to get them/how to get reimbursed. Mine started paying for them ago few years ago and that made a huge difference. The first year a bunch of group members went down to the optometrist's to get theirs. In subsequent years, the incoming first years/postdocs were informed of the procedure and strongly encouraged to go. We have pretty much 100% compliance for the people who wear glasses.
    We also have a departmental safety officer who likes to stop by all the time and lectures people who don't have them on.

  4. We've had the opposite problem here: a couple of foreign postdocs (one of whom actually mouth pipettes) who have completely demolished the safety culture for (the foreign) half of our lab. We (the compliant half) first tried explaining why they need to wear PPE (injuries, liability; Hell, they've even had a pretty spectacular accident involving a TBAF/AcOH geyser), then confronted them about it in lab, and, finally, gave up as they see the "wise" postdocs as the only authorities on lab techniques/safety. With our PI too unplugged from the lab to take a hard stand, we've pretty much had to make peace with just looking out for our own hides...

  5. An undergrad professor of mine took the approach of carrying a squirt bottle of DI water around all the time in the lab, and anyone not wearing their lab glasses properly got squirted in the face.

  6. On a side note, Ash has a post that Patrick Harran of UCLA was elected a fellow of AAAS: http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/

  7. It probably wouldn't help the postdoc's working relationships, but after 30+ years in industry, I have only one word for the supervisor...OSHA.

    Are there still people who think that only less talented people go to industry and the "smart" ones stay in academe?

  8. QV could show them this example of what can happen when rely on standard prescription eyeglasses for protection:

    Also, perhaps it's worth talking to the department's safety officer or someone in EH&S, to get their advice? They know the campus and culture.

  9. In addition to the following suggestions:
    •Build a good relationship with co-workers and encourage the use of proper PPE. Provide articles showing the danger of injuries when proper PPE is not used.
    •If you are responsible (senior staff) for the space, lead by example when dealing with safety issues. Train the incoming staff and provide them with information about what or what NOT to do when entering the lab. This will leave a good impression on the individuals and make them aware of the dire consequences of the guidelines are not followed. And;

    FINALLY, the MOST important advice I can give you, "that will work", is to CONVINCE your adviser/PI or division director/management that this is a priority issue. The directives MUST come directly from them. Otherwise, it will not work no matter what you do. You can ONLY implement management/managers recommendations. It will not be easy, but keep trying.

  10. 1) e-mail your PI about it, just so it's documented that you suggested something be done, especially if it's individuals with whom you have a training/mentorship relationship that could imply some sort of legal responsibility/liability for you.
    2) leave copies of this (http://news.mit.edu/1992/safety-0311) on the desks of the guilty

    or, cynically:

    3) keep your head down, get your first-authors, and GTFO ASAP. It's really not your problem.

    I like the squirt-bottle idea, too.

  11. Your institution should have a PPE policy that would include safety glasses, etc. If it doesn't, then you need to poke your institutional EH&S folks to create one! It can help in that conversation you're going to have with your PI.

    I like the idea about having a selection of safety glasses available for folks to try on. The new pair I have are so comfortable, I forget I have them on (which is the point).

    In line with the "hearts and minds" approach - I like to stress to researchers I care about their well-being and don't want them to end up like that guy at Berkeley (link above).

    Good luck - without good support from PI, Department Chair, or the institution, it's a tough go.

    1. I agree with all statements above.

      You could also make the habitual offenders pay a small "fine" - like contributing towards the purchase of donuts for a group meeting. Aka the swear jar approach.

  12. "Are there still people who think that only less talented people go to industry and the "smart" ones stay in academe?"

    yes. the fact that academia publishes more than industry with more lax safety rules means that not only is academia more productive, but they don't need to have their hands held to not spray acid in their faces.

    I spent a brief year in industry and every synthesis carried out needed a "peer review". Meanwhile in academia people just get an idea and do it. You are a shitty scientist if you think you need your ideas peer reviewed before you try them.

    1. Not all companies are the same. At my previous job we did not have to get any syntheses peer reviewed before doing it and the amount of safety oversight was good but not intrusive. However, don't confuse productivity with number of journal publications, as all of the best results will get patented long before anything is ever published in a journal.

    2. Yeah, back off, we're scientists!

  13. Put a pair of splash goggles and an eye patch on the lab bulletin board and a sign with the words "IT'S YOUR CHOICE" below them.