Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lab safety: a conversation with an EH&S professional

I was recently contacted by a lab safety professional at a very large research institution; we will call this person "E." E. and I had a very nice e-mail conversation and also a phone conversation; below is the result. Details have been removed to protect E.'s identity; the phone conversation is reconstructed from my memories and my notebook. This post has been run past E. for accuracy. 

By e-mail:

CJ: What kind of training are you required to do? Who makes you do it? 

E: We are required to provide training on the OSHA standards that pertain to employees working in labs. By law, we have to tell people the information contained in those particular standards. The standards that apply are laboratory safety, ppe, hazard communication and bloodborne pathogens. The information is basic, which is the chief complaint of the researchers who attend. The alternative is to make sure each and every researcher actually reads all the applicable standards. If you're familiar with them, it's about as much fun as reading the instructions for filing your taxes. I doubt any of them would actually ever take the time to read and understand the requirements.

CJ: What kind of training would you like to do and how much? 

E: On occasion, a lab will ask for a specific training course, which is a lot more fun for me to develop and a lot more interesting for them - because it's applicable to their work. One of the labs has many researchers and they use a lot of hydrofluoric acid. There is a concern that some of the users are too casual with it, not understanding that HF is not just any other acid. On their request, I developed a quick 15-minute presentation on the specifics of using HF, its physiological mode of action if you get it on yourself, and what to do if you or someone else is unfortunate enough to be exposed. I love to provide that kind of specific information and interact with people in that manner. The problem is that I provide health and safety support to [lots of] labs on campus. There isn't enough time to do specific training for each lab, for the thousands of chemicals in use. This doesn't even begin to address use of specific pieces of equipment. I'm not qualified to teach researchers how to use the equipment they operate; there's too much for one person to know. Want to hear a real frightening fact? One of the PIs told me that they don't always know how to operate the equipment they order, or even understand the safety implications.

CJ: Do people listen to you?

E: Do people listen to me? Hmm, that's a good question. For the most part I would say no. There's a huge push to get research done, and the grad students and post docs will do whatever it takes to get it done. Lots of pressure from the PIs. There are some faculty members who insist on a safe lab with things being done appropriately. These are the people I hear from routinely and they value my assistance and the information I can provide.
The other part of people not listening is the "invincibility" factor. People under 30, for the most part, don't really believe anything bad will ever happen to them. Since the majority of people working in the labs are younger, this is a huge problem.

CJ: What resources do you think we (bench scientists) don't use enough? 

E: I think bench scientists don't use your EHS people enough. Many of us know a lot more than we ever get to tell you about because we are so busy running around "putting out fires" so to speak. If the researcher would think through the entire process from start to finish, they might ask more questions and avoid problems. Like "what do I do with a used filter that is contaminated with fuming nitric acid? Can I throw that into a plastic bucket that we use for gloves, paper towels, etc?" No - you'll generate enough heat to ignite the waste in the bucket. Or "my process will end up with nitric acid and organic solvent in the same container. Is there a problem with that?" Well, not if you leave the cap off until the reaction finishes. Otherwise your bottle will blow up - which happens a half dozen times a year. The labs learn that lesson one by one.
For the most part, I'm told people don't ask questions because the "safety" person will end up costing them time or money with their recommendations. [Terrifying, yet possibly identifying anecdote redacted. - CJ] So, I just get to stumble on these as I go along and then fight to get the work moved somewhere else.

CJ: What legal remedies (laws, etc.) would you suggest? 
E: Legal remedies. I don't really know about this one. The case law I've read suggests the burden usually falls on the grad student, because they knew or should have anticipated a problem and taken measures to protect themself and others. I think university administrators need to stop looking the other way, and not allow business as usual. There needs to be some real accountability on the part of the supervisor (in this case, the PI) as there is in private industry. If a supervisor knew they would be held personally accountable, and it could impact their bottom line (or their reputation), they would have some motivation to insist on things being done safely.
CJ: How much do you inspect the labs that you're in? 

Each lab gets an annual inspection with a follow up afterward to ensure corrective action. However, the labs know ahead of time when the inspection will be happening and hide things. The reason for the announced inspection is so that I have a chance to interact with the research group and ask questions about their work. This helps me identify potential problems and provide suggestions for remedial action. There are just too many people doing too many things in too many places for me to keep up with. 

By phone: 

E. and I had a very nice conversation by phone, which ended up to be much more of a conversation about EH&S and less an interview. Key points:

An SOP binder: One thing that E. suggested for principal investigators was a "standard operation procedure" binder, where the grad student would read the appropriate way to do something (e.g. transfer t-butyllithium) and then sign that they had read and understood the document. 

Why not surprise inspections?: I was surprised to learn that surprise inspections were something that E.'s adminstration was not interested in -- I've always thought that surprise inspections would be exactly the way to catch grad students (including myself) burying bodies they shouldn't be. 

Never an unlucky day?: As for the most annoying thing E. has heard, E. couldn't really think of anything. E. is most bothered by the number of times that students have said that they didn't put on their PPE because it was too uncomfortable, inconvenient or they didn't think it would be their "unlucky day." 

Don't let it be your unlucky day, folks. Be safe out there. Please leave your comments about how you think EH&S could be better done...


  1. Having EH&S personnel or Department can be either valuable resource or huge waste of time depending on thier knowledge, communications skills, focus and support (from above and below). I have experienced both ends of spectrum although would suggests usually better in industry than academia (quantitaively 4/6 vs 1/3) largely because typically more attention/systematic in former. Problem EH&S often is most plans/presentation are presented poorly being either boring or not relevant to what people in labs are doing day to day.

    In the end each person must take responsibility from themselves and those around them. Some lessons I learned the hard way or through close calls and in most situations chemists often neglect to pass on warnings because think should be "obvious".

  2. Having trouble leaving a comment on original syn.. in Santa Fe at a writers' workshop. FWIW, I heard from Jerry Joyce. Check the C&EN blog.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20