Safety first

[This post is based on the editorial in the April issue – read here for the full text, available for free to all registed users. We’re going to post more editorials on the blog in the hope of getting feedback from you all.]

Is any experiment worth your health — or your life?

Over a year has passed since the tragic death of Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Almost exactly a year later, the pages of C&EN reported another laboratory accident at a university chemistry department, this time Texas Tech. The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), an independent federal agency, are investigating the accident and will now start gathering information on incidents in academic laboratories in ‘a more detailed way’.

These accidents — and lower-profile ones in UK university chemistry departments in December — serve to remind us that chemistry can be a hazardous pursuit. Most people would agree that the risk is lower now than it was in the past, thanks to an increased culture of safety no longer tolerating such ill-advised laboratory behaviour as smoking or mouth-pipetting. Nevertheless, recent accidents clearly illustrate that there is still much room for improvement and that safety must never be taken for granted or become an afterthought.

Although it is not just academic laboratories in which accidents can happen, there is a commonly held belief that standards of safety are much higher in industrial laboratories than they are in their academic counterparts. There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps it is simply that industry has a stronger and deeper culture of safety than academia, or maybe the nature of academic research means it involves greater unknowns than some industrial research. Other factors could include working alone out of normal working hours and a relative lack of experience among the young researchers in academia.

Although legislation can put policies and procedures in place to try to minimize the safety risks in chemical laboratories, accidents will still happen and no law will prevent them. Only a wholesale acceptance of responsibility from top to bottom will do. From the top, academic departments must do more to ensure that safety comes first for all staff and students. Faculty members should instil their groups with a strong culture of safety and be prepared for work to go a little more slowly for it to go more safely.

Post-doctoral workers must realize that their habits will be imitated by more junior members in the laboratory and so they should act accordingly and be prepared to mentor their co-workers. Finally, undergraduate and postgraduate students should exercise their right to express concern over their colleagues’ practices. It must be acknowledged that safe practices are not there to make lives more difficult, but to save those lives — it is only through actively using those safety measures that accidents will be reduced to as low a level as possible.