Felony charges have been filed against the University of California and a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) chemistry professor in connection with a laboratory fire that killed a staff research assistant three years ago. The L.A. County district attorney’s office has filed criminal charges against the chemistry professor responsible for the training and supervision of the research assistant, and the regents of the University of California with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards, resulting in the research assistant’s death.
This tragedy has prompted universities and biotech facilities across the nation to scrutinize their own laboratory safety programs to ensure that they are adequately protecting employees from injury. EH&E manages environmental health and safety (EH&S) programs for several large research institutions in Boston and Cambridge, MA and understands these concerns. Similar incidents reported by the media have driven our staff to conduct internal reviews of our own programs to identify vulnerabilities and make improvements. This article offers insights from our internal reviews and resulting efforts on strategies we’ve found to be successful at improving safety program performance.
Strengthen the Laboratory Inspection Program
Laboratory inspections are not a regulatory requirement but can be an invaluable part of an EH&S program. If positioned properly, these inspections foster a cooperative relationship between EH&S, laboratory supervisors, and researchers, and reinforce the message that EH&S is everyone’s responsibility.
Announced vs. Unannounced Inspections
Unannounced inspections may provide a more accurate picture of the day-to-day safety practices in a laboratory; however, the inspections are often not well received by laboratory staff and can position the EH&S office (or safety officer) as the “bad guy”. This creates a rift between the laboratory staff and the EH&S office that can actually prevent people from seeking help because they fear negative consequences. We have learned instead to use announced inspections and to work with researchers directly to position ourselves as “trusted advisors”. An exception to this is the occasional use of unannounced inspections specifically to address the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
We recommend annual inspections for each laboratory, escalating the frequency if a laboratory has a history of non-compliance, or if a lab uses highly hazardous substances (e.g., highly reactive or pyrophoric materials). Follow up inspections are performed to verify that corrections have been made.
Standardized Checklists and Reports
Whether you have one person or multiple people responsible for EH&S inspections, a standardized checklist helps to ensure consistency. Depending on the size of your EH&S department, you may consider having a senior EH&S manager audit the person(s) responsible for inspections annually to verify they are being performed correctly.
A standardized report format allows you to produce reports more efficiently and in a timely manner so that deficiencies can be addressed sooner. The report should reflect the positive aspects of the inspection (percent compliance) as well as point out deficiencies found – a report consisting only of negatives is not effective. We’ve also found it helpful to include the specific citation on the report (and on the inspection checklist). This gives it credibility and illustrates why something must be corrected; rather than the impression that EH&S is enforcing rules arbitrarily.
Centralized Database for Inspection Records
A central database for tracking inspection observations is critical in helping manage your inspection program. The performance metrics generated by the database highlight potential vulnerabilities and can be used to tailor your lab inspections and training program; or used to identify the need for an internal special emphasis outreach program that targets specific safety issues, such as the proper selection and use of PPE.
Get Creative Delivering Health and Safety Training
Employee health and safety (H&S) training is an essential part of meeting EPA and OSHA compliance requirements, and it provides those working in laboratories with the specialized knowledge they need to perform their jobs safely.
For the facilities we manage, we utilize a combination of classroom (in-person) and web-based training. Typically web-based training covers general H&S awareness and annual refresher training. Classroom training is used for new employee orientation training and for site-specific conditions that require specialized content or when an open discussion format is beneficial. Web-based training programs can save your EH&S staff time by reducing the hours spent on classroom training and recordkeeping. This gives them more time to focus on other EH&S program priorities.
To encourage compliance, you may want to provide laboratory supervisors with a list of their staff, identifying those that are not compliant with the H&S training. This can be done at the time of the laboratory inspection and documented on the inspection form as an observation. Getting the support of upper management can be helpful in motivating supervisors.
Create a Laboratory Hazardous Assessment Tool – and Use It
Conducting a hazard assessment of laboratory operations allows you to assess the risks based on actual operations, which in turn identifies the regulatory requirements, appropriate PPE, and necessary training. Prior to a laboratory moving in or beginning operations, EH&S should work with the laboratory supervisor to complete the hazardous assessment and obtain an inventory of materials to be used (chemical, biological, radioactive). This information allows EH&S to provide support while the laboratory is being set-up and helps to communicate the importance of safety and establish EH&S as a resource.
Consider a Laboratory Safety Committee
Although it isn’t a regulatory requirement, a Safety Committee can significantly enhance your safety program by helping create a strong safety culture. Membership should include representatives outside of the EH&S department such as research, security, facilities, custodial services and administration.
The performance metrics gathered from laboratory inspections and training records should be used by the committee to identify potential deficiencies and vulnerabilities in the safety program. This information can be used to focus the efforts and resources of the committee.
Incorporate EH&S in the Laboratory Design Process
Typically new laboratories are constructed using a standard design and then have to be retrofitted later to accommodate actual lab operations because there are not enough fume hoods or biosafety cabinets, or emergency equipment was not installed in the proper location. When constructing a new laboratory it’s best to know what the laboratory operations will be and to involve an EH&S representative during the design process. This will insure the correct safety and emergency equipment and engineering controls are installed properly and save money on retrofitting the space after the fact.
Creating a Culture of Safety
Many institutions consider incentive-based programs to encourage compliance. In our experience these programs have limited success. Employees comply with safe practices only during the time period necessary to obtain the reward; once the reward is received they stop.
We’ve found instead that the more simple the safety program is the greater the compliance. Make it easy for employees to get help, access information and PPE, and to take training. Make written policies, fact sheets, and forms web accessible. Visual aids (posters, labels, etc.) are extremely helpful and should be used in addition to written instructions, and PPE should be stored at the entrance of the lab so it is readily available.
Laboratories are potentially dangerous work environments. The UCLA incident is a tragic reminder of how vital it is that safety is an integral part of daily operations and that institutions must take measures to ensure their safety program is effectively protecting staff. Regardless of the size of the institution, we’ve found it well worth the effort to implement these programs because they’ve proven successful in improving compliance, reducing the number of repeat incidents, reducing regulatory fines, protecting employees and creating a culture of safety.
Bryan is a Senior Scientist / EH&S Practice Leader at EH&E. He has extensive program management experience in environmental health and safety programs in the biotechnology and healthcare sectors. For more information, contact Bryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.