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Environmental Health and Safety

Laboratory Safety Culture

All university stakeholders are encouraged to take actions that will improve our laboratory safety culture. We all play a critical role in creating a safe research and teaching laboratory environment on campus.

Universities across the nation and even federal agencies have experienced the tragedy of serious incidents resulting from deficiencies in risk controls needed for laboratory research involving hazardous materials. Laboratory incidents have resulted in researcher deaths, serious injuries, faculty prosecution, significant laboratory facility issues, negative news publicity, costly fines, and lengthy complex incident investigations. USC has experienced an increase in lab incidents and fortunately so far, we have avoided a serious incident. The risk of a serious accident, spill or exposure incident continues to exist based on the extensive research experiments conducted that involve the use of biological, chemical, radiation, physical and other laboratory hazards. 

Creating a Safety Culture

A laboratory safety culture is essentially an assembly of beliefs, values, and patterns of behavior that individuals and the university share, which are designed to mitigate the risk of laboratory accidents and incidents. Laboratory incidents often result from a lack of attention to safety issues. A safety culture can complement and enhance the effectiveness of established risk controls such as operating procedures and practices that are intended to promote safety and improve compliance with applicable regulations, standards, and guidelines, as well as encourage ethics in research. Multiple reports following investigations of incidents at other institutions have revealed a pattern of recurring issues, of complacency, and a lax culture of safety. We want to learn from these incidents by taking actions to improve our laboratory safety culture.

Laboratory incident reports have highlighted that federal agencies must address cultural factors in addition to policy and management efforts to ensure the effectiveness of its laboratory safety programs. There are many recurring themes, recommendations and lessons learned from incident investigations and federal task force reports to improve the laboratory safety culture. Some of these recommendations include:

  • senior leadership renews commitment to improve the culture of lab safety
  • appoint a campus leadership team to begin improving the safety culture
  • conduct campus dialogues with stakeholders to develop a shared vision for safety
  • clearly articulate roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders
  • establish a safety rewards and recognition system
  • develop a risk assessment process for laboratory safety
  • empower all lab personnel to voice safety questions and concerns
  • strengthen collaborative relationships between faculty and safety professional staff
  • implement a process to report incidents and near misses to learn from incidents
  • provide laboratory safety training for all lab personnel
  • emphasize safe practices in science and engineering curricula
  • conduct self-assessments to provide feedback on the safety culture

The University’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) Executive Committee has recognized laboratory safety as an institutional area of high risk. The ERM Research Safety Senior Committee identified the highest institutional research risks are laboratory accidents, incidents, or unapproved research involving biological, chemical, and radiation hazards. The EH&S Office of Research Safety (ORS) was established to promote more unified oversight for these laboratory risks. The ORS consists of three separate programs focused on biological safety, chemical safety, and radiation safety in laboratories. All university stakeholders are encouraged to take actions that will improve our laboratory safety culture. We all play a critical role in creating a safe research and teaching laboratory environment on campus.


A Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture

The APLU published A Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture in Our Universities [pdf]. According to this report, as educational institutions and research universities, faculty across the nation should be at the forefront of embracing this culture of safety and adopting or developing best practices that makes this culture foundational to each institution. The fundamental nature of laboratory research and discovery involves risk, but it is incumbent on all of us to embrace the idea that the culture of safety is foundational to our educational mission, the discovery process, and responsible conduct of research. The APLU formed a Task Force on Laboratory Safety to provide research universities with recommendations and guidance on the most appropriate strategies to help enhance the culture of laboratory safety on each campus.  The APLU report highlights five core institutional values foundational to a culture of safety:

Each institution should commit to providing a campus environment that supports the health and safety practices of its community (faculty, students, staff and visitors) and empowers the community to be responsible for the safety of others. A safe campus environment is a right of employment for all categories of employees. A safe campus learning environment is a right of all involved in education and research.

Safety is a critical component of scholarly excellence and responsible conduct of research.

They instill a culture of safety in the next generation of researchers and future faculty, and they are important for our students’ career development and employability.

An improved culture of safety is necessary to truly reduce risk throughout the academic enterprise.

It is best to recognize that diverse methods and flexible approaches will be used by each institution to develop a strong culture of safety, unique to its situation.

Guiding Principles for Biosafety Governance

The White House National Security Council (NSC) tasked the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) to make recommendations to optimize biosafety oversight and identify regulatory changes to improve biosafety. The FESAP published the Guiding Principles for Biosafety Governance [pdf] report to assist institutions in ensuring compliance with federal requirements and fostering a culture of responsibility for biosafety and biosecurity. These principles and practices are intended to promote robust programs of oversight and to ensure that all institutional stakeholders are aware of their responsibilities for compliance with biosafety requirements and the importance of upholding a strong culture of biosafety within the research community. The FESAP included the following guiding principles and best practices for ensuring institutions have an appropriate organizational and governance structure to ensure compliance with biosafety regulations and guidelines:

  • Establish formal, written policies and standard operating procedures for biosafety and biosecurity oversight to ensure compliance with Federal regulations and guidelines. Review these policies and standard operating procedures frequently.
  • Articulate the roles and responsibilities of all individuals conducting or overseeing life sciences research for ensuring compliance with biosafety and biosecurity requirements, including senior administrators, oversight committees, principal investigators, laboratory personnel and students.
  • Conduct regular assessments of committees, offices, and departments with responsibilities for biosafety and biosecurity oversight to assess their function and strengthen their performance when necessary.
  • Coordinate activities among committees, departments, offices, and staff with biosafety and biosecurity oversight and compliance responsibilities.
  • Ensure the institution has a robust mandatory training program for all personnel working with biohazardous materials.
  • Ensure senior leadership is engaged with respect to institutional biosafety and biosecurity oversight and compliance functions.
  • Ensure appropriate resources are devoted to biosafety and biosecurity oversight and compliance activities at the institution.
  • Promote transparency regarding institutional biosafety and biosecurity oversight.
  • Foster a culture of responsibility regarding biosafety and biosecurity among all personnel overseeing or conducting work with biohazardous materials at the institution.

Laboratory Safety Culture Resources

A Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture in Our Universities (APLU) [pdf]

Guiding Principles for Biosafety Governance (FESAP) [pdf]

Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions (ACS)

A Way to Improve Lab-Safety Culture? (Science Magazine) [pdf]

Study to Examine Academic Lab-Safety Culture (Science Magazine) [pdf]



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