Research Safety Blog

BioRAFT will be attending CSHEMA 2016 at Booth #201 from 7/24-7/27

We're pleased to announce that this year, BioRAFT will be sponsoring CSHEMA 2016, taking place at the JW Marriott in Austin, TX, at Booth #201.

63rd CSHEMA Annual Conference, Booth #201

JW Marriott in Austin, TX

July 24-27

Want to see how BioRAFT can help with your laboratory safety and management challenges?

>>> Click here to make an appointment with us <<<

Drop by, say hi, meet some of our team, and learn how BioRAFT's enterprise solution can help your EHS team and your organization work more efficiently and better manage risk.

Not familiar with BioRAFT? Take a look at our explainer video below:

Containing the Unexpected: Improving Lab Safety Crisis Management Skills

This is part 4 in our continuing series looking at the model of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) as a resource for laboratory safety management. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can be found here:

Part 1) "What is an HRO?"

Part 2) "Establishing Mindfulness"

Part 3) "Anticipating the Unexpected"


High Reliability Organizations (HROs) are groups or industries that utilize a set of 5 Principles to function reliably in situations that constantly lend themselves to failure. In our last article we took a look at the first 3 Principles: Preoccupation with Failure, Resistance to Simplification, and Sensitivity to Operations, which all relate to Anticipation (what your organization can do to see and prevent failure before it happens).

The last 2 Principles (Deference to Expertise and Commitment to Resilience) offer guidance on how to act during and after an incident. Thinking quickly and rationally is a challenge in any stressful situation, and the Principles of Containment can help you stay focused and productive.


4) Deference to Expertise

When an incident occurs, a Deference to Expertise sends information about the problem pinging around your organization. During this process, a credible employee comes forward with a proposed solution, solving the issue or mitigating its effects and preventing escalation until a more complete fix can take place.

Deference to Expertise has two goals: migrating information around the organization to find the best person for the task at hand, and empowering people to act when action is needed. When both are happening, issues tend to be solved more quickly and effectively as they crop up.

Successful migration of information requires three things:

  1. Deference downward. Frequently, employees on the ground have more useful, nuanced knowledge about the ins and outs of a system than people farther up the hierarchy. If your organization isn't considering their expertise, it's likely missing out on some valuable resources.
  2. Deference upward. The opposite or deference downward: when a problem occurs, recruit a supervisor or manager to help. Most organizations are already good at this.
  3. Adopting an "I don't know" mindset. Admitting that you may not have all the answers will make it easier to relay information when it comes into your hands, since you'll feel a stronger urge to find the person or people who do have the answers.

Enabling people to act requires two things:

  1. Deference downward. It's not déjà vu. When you respect the opinions of those lower down the hierarchy, it gives them confidence that their ideas are valued. This same confidence enables people with expertise to speak up when they realize they have a good solution.
  2. Awareness of credibility. Try to develop a sense of individuals' knowledge of different subjects. This not only prevents outspoken employees from pushing poor ideas forward, but also aids you in giving ideas from credible employees more weight.


Give it some context: Remember the needle stick incident that we dealt with in our last article? Using the 3 Principles of Anticipation, Isabella (Director of EHS), Frankie (Lab Safety Officer), and Ronda (Lab Safety Coordinator) recognized and fixed what turned out to be a system-wide needle disposal problem. Unfortunately, no amount of Anticipation could have prevented the incident described below:

A postdoc from the Gabriel lab, weary from a long day of work, comes in to the lab at 3am to collect data for a time point. Moments later, Isabella wakes up to a phone call–never a good sign. The postdoc has spilled 70% nitric acid all over the floor, and a HazMat response is necessary. Isabella calms her down, thinks for a moment, and calls Frankie.

Some labs in the institution work with the extremely reactive compound hydrofluoric acid (HF), and if this lab is one of them, Isabella needs to warn the first responders so they can arrive prepared. Though she could send this information up the hierarchy to the Chemical Hygiene Officer, she knows that Frankie has done HF training for the institution, and that he has up-to-date knowledge of its HF labs. Sure enough, Frankie confirms with confidence that the lab has HF, and tells Isabella and the first responders exactly where it is and how much is there. As a result of this Deference to Expertise, the spill is cleaned up quickly, and the danger to the first responders is minimized.


5) Commitment to Resilience

Though failure can interfere with the smooth functioning of your organization, it doesn't have to mean a total shutdown. In fact, it's possible not only for your organization to spring back after a failure, but for it to gain the capability to respond better in the future. These qualities are created through a Commitment to Resilience.

Commitment to Resilience has three goals (from Weick and Sutcliffe's Managing the Unexpected):

  1. Absorb strain and preserve function in the face of internal and external adversity.
  2. Develop the ability to recover and bounce back from untoward events.
  3. Ability to learn and grow from previous episodes of resilient action.


In layman's terms, a Commitment to Resilience should help your organization to:

  1. Degrade gracefully. For example, an escalator that can still function as stairs when its motor breaks, or a set of Christmas tree lights where one bulb can go out without putting out the entire string.
  2. Put itself back together. On both a short term (during the incident) and long term scale (afterwards), a failure occurring shouldn't necessarily prevent your organization from fixing itself and its functioning.
  3. Increase its capability for flexibility. Instead of adding more guidelines that just make it harder to react to a problem, your organization can be better able to act when a novel circumstance arises.


As we've learned from Resistance to Simplification, any two failures are rarely identical, even if they are similar. Elaborate defenses often backfire and instead act as elaborate obstacles. A Commitment to Resilience can help your organization develop useful tools it can leverage when new problems inevitably occur.

Give it some context: Though Frankie's fast response protected the first responders and saved the organization serious costs in potential property damage, much of the Gabriel lab space will be out of commission until it's repaired. Experiments can't always be put on hold, and the other Gabriel lab researchers have started demanding a solution so that their work isn't put in jeopardy.

To ensure graceful degradation, Isabella temporarily places the researchers with greatest need at bench space in other labs. Thanks to her accurate knowledge of out-of-use equipment across the institution, Isabella knows exactly where there's extra bench space to be had. With that stress relieved, she sets her sights on getting the lab repaired quickly so that it can be up and running again ASAP, saving cosmetic repairs for later. Finally, Isabella schedules a meeting with Frankie to discuss their response to the spill. If Frankie's familiarity with HF labs is so important, they need to make sure that other members of EHS are familiar with his expertise in case someone other than Isabella gets the call at night.

The 2 Principles of Containment (as with all of the 5 HRO Principles) should make it easier for your organization to react to failure and weather untoward incidents, not harder. Remember that these are guidelines, not commandments, and they should be molded to build on what you already do well. When organizations successfully integrate the 5 HRO Principles, they tend to create their own unique framework, emphasizing or downplaying certain aspects of the Principles to fit their own needs.

If you think that the 2 Principles of Containment look appealing, one way to start could be to list the ways that your organization succeeds under times of stress. Then, look through the 2 Principles of Containment for similar items, and try to start small by making little tweaks to improve your process. From there, you may find it easier to identify other places where your needs match up to the solutions offered by the 2 Principles of Containment.


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Matt Segal is a Marketing Specialist for BioRAFT. Before joining BioRAFT, he conducted molecular biology research at the Immune Disease Institute at Harvard Medical School, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, and Boston Children’s Hospital. Matt will be continuing to blog and manage BioRAFT’s social media accounts.

BioRAFT will be at the 2016 CT Biosafety Alliance on 6/17

2016 CT Biosafety Alliance Inaugural Event

Wesleyan University

Middletown, CT

June 17, 2016


BioRAFT will be attending the 2016 CT Biosafety Alliance Inaugural Event at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.

Come by and say hi, meet some of our team, and learn how BioRAFT’s enterprise solution can help your EHS team and your organization improve laboratory safety and management.

Not familiar with BioRAFT? Take a look at our explainer video below:

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