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.
UofSC 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, radiological, physical and other laboratory hazards.
Creating a Safety Culture
A safety culture is essentially an assembly of beliefs, attitudes, and patterns of behavior of individuals and organizations that are designed to prevent laboratory accidents and incidents. This safety culture can support, complement or enhance operating procedures, rules, and practices as well as professional standards and ethics that are intended to accomplish similar goals. Multiple reports following investigations of incidents at other institutions have revealed a pattern of recurring issues, of complacency, and a lax culture of safety.
One lesson learned from past reviews is that federal agencies must address cultural factors in addition to policy and management efforts to ensure the effectiveness of its lab safety programs. There are many recurring themes, recommendations and lessons learned from incident investigations and federal task force efforts to improve 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) Oversight Committee recognized laboratory safety as an institutional area of high risk. The Research Safety and Compliance Oversight Committee identified the three highest risks are incidents involving biological, chemical and radiological hazards. The EHS Office of Research Safety (ORS) was established to promote more unified oversight for these 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. Each of us plays a critical role in creating a safe campus learning environment for all involved in education and research.
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 discovery enterprise can involve 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. APLU formed the 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 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 those at the institution are aware of their responsibilities for compliance with biosafety requirements and the importance of upholding a strong culture of biosafety within the research community.
- 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