Recent serious and sometimes fatal accidents in chemical research laboratories at U.S. universities have driven government agencies, professional societies, industries, and universities themselves to examine the culture of safety in research laboratories. These incidents have triggered a broader discussion of how serious incidents can be prevented in the future and how best to train researchers and emergency personnel to respond appropriately when incidents do occur. As the priority placed on safety increases, many institutions have expressed a desire to go beyond simple compliance with regulations to work toward fostering a strong, positive safety culture: affirming a constant commitment to safety throughout their institutions, while integrating safety as an essential element in the daily work of laboratory researchers (Box S-1).
The shift away from mere compliance and toward promoting a strong, positive safety culture has already yielded benefits in industries such as aviation and health care. However, the best approach to promote an improved safety culture within the academic research environment—with its unique goals, cultural dynamics, practices, and pressures—merits investigation. At the request of the study sponsors,1 the National Research Council appointed a committee of experts in chemistry, human–systems integration, laboratory safety management, university administration,
1 This study was supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, the American Chemical Society, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
What Is Safety Culture?
Safety culture refers to an organization’s shared values, assumptions, and beliefs specific to workplace safety or, more simply, the importance of safety within the organization relative to other priorities.
A strong, positive safety culture arises not because of a set of rules, but because of a commitment to safety throughout an organization. Such a culture supports the free exchange of safety information, emphasizes learning and improvement, and assigns greater importance to identifying and solving problems rather than placing blame. High importance is assigned to safety all the time, not just when it is convenient or does not threaten personal or institutional productivity goals.
and other fields to examine the culture of safety in academic institutions and recommend ways to improve their overall safety performance. While this report is focused primarily on academic chemistry laboratories, there are a wide variety of environments both in and outside academia that may benefit from the recommendations made herein. The full statement of task can be found in Box 1-1 (Chapter 1).
During the course of its study, the committee heard from researchers, faculty, and others involved in chemical research, made site visits to academic labs, examined research literature on safety culture in other industries, and drew upon their own expertise to arrive at a series of findings and conclusions (see Chapter 5) about current safety culture and practices in academia. In addition, the committee recommends a series of actions that universities should take to build and sustain a strong, positive safety culture in their laboratories, with the ultimate goal of protecting the lives and health of the researchers who work in them.
Interest in promoting safety in academic research laboratories has grown in recent years, following high-profile incidents in which researchers were injured or killed. Many colleges and universities are interested in fostering a safety culture that goes beyond compliance with regulations: affirming a constant, institution-wide commitment to safety and integrating safety as an essential element in the daily work of researchers.
It is important to recognize that while fostering a strong, positive safety culture in academic research laboratories can reduce the risk of incidents and injuries, it cannot eliminate that risk entirely. The major objec-
tive of chemistry research endeavors, like all research, is to expand knowledge, and this pursuit entails experiments that may involve hazardous substances and new reactions, the nature and magnitude of which cannot always be predicted. The objective of establishing a strong, positive safety culture in a research setting is not to remove all risk—an impossible task—but to identify and mitigate hazards that are foreseeable, employ general precautions that help protect against unforeseeable hazards, and ensure the capacity to respond to incidents in ways that minimize harm.
An ideal laboratory safety culture ensures that all researchers who set foot in an academic laboratory, from inexperienced students to senior principal investigators (PIs), understand that they are entering a research environment that requires special precautions. Researchers are aware of the hazards posed by the materials with which they and other labs are working, and they are prepared to take rapid and appropriate measures to protect themselves and their co-workers, especially in the case of unexpected events.
A strong, positive safety culture encourages all laboratory workers to place the highest priority on best practices and to raise concerns to colleagues and supervisors, including principal investigators, when they identify or are concerned about potential safety problems. It is not enough to provide safe equipment, systems, and procedures if the culture of the organization does not encourage and support working safely in the research laboratory.
The specialized and insular structure and hierarchical nature of academic research can pose challenges to the development of a strong, positive safety culture. Principal investigators operate autonomously, exercising significant authority over the research and the research personnel in their individual laboratories, and in some cases may regard good safety practices, such as inspections by outsiders or following established safety procedures, as a barrier to research progress and a violation of their academic freedom. The very character of academic research and its pursuit of new knowledge engenders an entrepreneurial spirit, an aspect of which can be resistant to central dictates or “one-size-fits-all” mandates. Meanwhile, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and other research staff are dependent, financially and educationally, upon their principal investigators’ grants and research projects. Concern about their future and the impact of their attitudes on their budding careers may make them reluctant to raise safety questions or concerns.
Overcoming these challenges and building cultures that prioritize safety will require responsibility and action from everyone involved in the research enterprise. Institutional leaders need to rethink how they deploy resources, organize reporting relationships, and structure incentives for promoting safety. Principal investigators will need to take responsibility
for supporting and fostering safety culture in their laboratories, which includes taking proactive steps to counter the dynamics of the power differential that may inhibit laboratory researchers from raising or elevating safety concerns. Each individual researcher, whose safety is at stake, should play a leadership role in developing and sustaining strong safety culture in the laboratories where they work. Finally, environmental health and safety personnel should work collaboratively with all of these parties, assisting their efforts to establish a strong, positive safety culture.
The broad institutional setting in which research takes place can strongly influence whether university laboratories develop and sustain a strong, positive safety culture. Specifically, the level of importance attached to safety by university leadership, the way these leaders promote safety as a core institutional value, the way they direct resources, and the structure of incentives and reporting relationships they support all affect the degree of priority given to safety practices.
Recommendation 1: The president and other institutional leaders must actively demonstrate that safety is a core value of the institution and show an ongoing commitment to it.
Recommendation 2: The provost or chief academic officer, in collaboration with faculty governance, should incorporate fostering a strong, positive safety culture as an element in the criteria for promotion, tenure, and salary decisions for faculty.
Recommendation 3: All institutions face a challenge of limited resources. Within this constraint, institutional head(s) of research and department chairs should consider the resources they have available for safety when considering or designing programs, and identify types of research that can be done safely with available and projected resources and infrastructure.
Recommendation 4: University presidents and chancellors should establish policy and deploy resources to maximize a strong, positive safety culture. Each institution should have a comprehensive risk management plan for laboratory safety that addresses prevention, mitigation, and emergency response.
These leaders should develop risk management plans and mechanisms with input from faculty, students, environmental health and safety staff, and administrative stakeholders and ensure that other university leaders, including provosts, vice presidents for research, deans, chief administrative officers, and department chairs, do so as well.
Many research groups have differential power dynamics, which, if not appropriately addressed, can work against the development of a strong, positive safety culture. Department chairs and principal investigators should take steps to change these dynamics, creating mechanisms that empower laboratory researchers to communicate freely about safety and take an active role in establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture and in sustaining a safe research enterprise.
Recommendation 5: Department chairs and principal investigators should make greater use of teams, groups, and other engagement strategies and institutional support organizations (e.g., environmental health and safety, facilities), to establish and promote a strong, positive, safety culture.
Recommendation 6: Department chairs should provide a mechanism for creating a robust safety collaboration between researchers, principal investigators, and environmental health and safety personnel.
In addition to improving the organizational dynamics that drive safety practice, laboratories have a need for data and to conduct analyses that will help them identify and mitigate hazards. Traditionally, safety performance has been measured using lagging or after-the-fact indicators, such as numbers of accidents and lost-time injuries. To change behavior and culture before an incident occurs, organizations may take advantage of leading indicators: before-the-fact data that can help identify risks and vulnerabilities ahead of time. One key approach to identify hazards before they cause harm is to report and collect data on near misses. Another way to identify hazards is to conduct hazard analysis, a process to assess risks and their consequences and ensure that they are mitigated or eliminated before any lab work is initiated.
Recommendation 7: Organizations should incorporate nonpunitive incident and near-miss reporting as part of their safety cultures. The American Chemical Society, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and American Council on Education should work together to establish and maintain an anonymous reporting system, building on industry efforts, for centralizing the collection of information about and lessons learned from incidents and near misses in academic laboratories, and linking these data to the scientific literature. Department chairs and university leadership should incorporate the use of this system into their safety planning. Principal investigators should require their students to utilize this system.
Recommendation 8: The researcher and principal investigator should incorporate hazard analysis into laboratory notebooks prior to experiments, integrate hazard analysis into the research process, and ensure that it is specific to the laboratory and research topic area.
Training in safety practices—both initial training and ongoing mentoring and support—is an essential element in developing and sustaining a strong, positive safety culture. This is particularly important with researchers in academic labs, who are often relatively young and have limited experience. Entering (and even experienced) students may not know how to assess the risks of what they are doing, how to assess changes in risks if they change a key experimental parameter, or how to keep a small error from causing major problems. Moreover, they may not realize that a process they used in the past without apparent incident was out of the ordinary or dangerous.
Recommendation 9: Department leaders and principal investigators, in partnership with environmental health and safety personnel, should develop and implement actions and activities to complement initial, ongoing, and periodic refresher training. This training should ensure understanding and the ability to execute proper protective measures to mitigate potential hazards and associated risks.
As mentioned previously, everyone in the research enterprise has an important and individual role to play in establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture.
Presidents, chancellors, and provosts should discuss safety frequently and publicly and demonstrate through their actions that safety is a core value of the institution. They should deploy university resources in ways that support safety and reduce existing disincentives to safety practice—for example, by paying for personal protective equipment and hazardous waste disposal, so that PIs do not have to pay for such measures out of grant funding. Each institution should have a comprehensive risk management plan for laboratory safety that addresses prevention, mitigation, and emergency response. In addition, provosts should work with faculty governance to incorporate efforts to foster a strong, positive safety culture as an element in the criteria for promotion, tenure, and salary decisions for faculty.
Vice presidents for research and deans of schools and colleges should, in addition to deploying funds in ways that support safety, ensure that the lines of research undertaken by the institution are ones it has the capacity to perform safely. They can make certain that everyone involved in the research enterprise knows their role and responsibilities in supporting safety. They can develop reporting structures that support safety culture; an example would be for senior environmental health and safety (EHS) officials to report through the senior research management programs, typically at the vice president level or higher—a structure that may better integrate safety management into overall research management.
PIs and department chairs have responsibility for establishing strong safety culture in the laboratories they oversee. They should set an example by using safe practices and personal protective equipment, and they should ensure that researchers are properly trained in safety before they undertake any work. They should also take steps to counter the power dynamics that may make researchers—whose academic future largely depends on their PI—reluctant to raise safety concerns and questions. For example, they should encourage open dialogue about safety concerns among researchers in their labs, and establish regular times—such as “safety moments” at the beginning of lab meetings—where concerns can be raised. Establishing ongoing measures to support safety, such as unannounced walk-through inspections and non-punitive reporting systems for near misses, is also important. Department chairs, meanwhile, should work to build strong and cooperative relationships between their departments and EHS.
EHS professionals should partner with administrators, faculty, and researchers to go beyond compliance and establish a strong, positive
safety culture. They should reach out to these groups as they undertake these actions, offering collaboration and support. These professionals have an important role and the interactions between them and the rest of the research community is an important aspect of a strong, positive safety culture.
Researchers have responsibility for supporting safety culture in the labs where they work, and have the most at stake in doing so. Some of the strongest safety cultures are ones where researchers have taken leadership roles. Researchers should be encouraged to take such roles—by serving on safety committees, for example, and by taking part in non-punitive, walk-through inspections of other labs. The institution, meanwhile, must provide researchers with the equipment, training, systems, and cultural support they need to work safely.