Institutions are changing how they allocate budget. For many safety programs, that means one thing:
It’s time to sink or swim.
Upper management is increasingly requesting that you demonstrate not only how much value you add to your research program, but also what steps you’re taking to stay efficient.
So what’s changed here? University leaders are realizing that they can no longer simply hike tuition to cover rising costs, and they’re looking for new places for revenue generation. Unfortunately, they often turn their eyes to their research safety programs.
The good news is that if you play your cards right, you can turn that critical eye right on its head, obtaining more resources for you and your team. In our work with numerous universities, we’ve observed a few patterns that can help us understand this problem, as well as its potential solutions, and we want to share our knowledge with you.
In this article, we’ll set the stage by focusing on the risks of reducing a safety program’s budget (how not to do it). In our next piece, we’ll detail a few areas of focus you can cut back on that won’t introduce more risks.
There’s a saying in the safety world: “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident.”
It’s no secret that research safety programs can be a major cost center for most universities. As we all know, it’s not simply a matter of purchasing PPE and conducting inspections (unless you are just looking to “check the box” on safety).
While accidents themselves can be costly, dealing with the ensuing investigation, fines, and corrective actions all have significant costs as well. If you’ve ever experienced an accident and the ensuing follow up, you know what we’re talking about.
A few statistics to consider:
Not only that, but the ensuing investigation may draw unwanted scrutiny and expose other flaws in your safety program. Over half (54%) of institutions say they do not have the ability to withstand a major reputational risk event, according to research by United Educators.
Then, of course, there’s the human side to all of this that too often gets overlooked. When it’s your job to protect the people at your institution, you understandably get upset, sad, worried, and angry when something happens. That emotional turmoil and stress doesn’t come for free. Often, it impacts your job performance, or incentivizes you to find a new job at an organization that values its safety program a little more highly.
When you add it all up, it’s clear that investing in safety makes good financial and reputational sense.
Obviously, reducing funds from a critical area like safety is a tricky thing to get right.
On the one hand, you need to trim the fat from areas that add no value. On the other hand, you don't want to slash costs so much that you sacrifice safety and introduce a new risk in lack of coverage.
In some situations, the approach to cost-cutting is to downsize personnel, reduce professional enrichment, and hold off on purchasing new equipment. The irony is that this approach can actually end up increasing your risks and costing your institution more money in the long run.
The most obvious danger of reducing safety spending is the potential for people to get hurt.
Consider, for example, the now-infamous UCLA lab fire. Research assistant Sheri Sangji was transferring a syringe of tert-butyllithium when the chemical ignited. She was not wearing a lab coat and her clothing caught fire, resulting in severe burns that led to her death 18 days later.
Had Sheri had been wearing a fire-resistant lab coat, her burns might have been less severe. However, requisition forms from the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry show that fire-resistant lab coats were only ordered after the accident, at a cost of $45.05 each.
The ensuing court case cost UCLA nearly $4.5 million in legal fees alone — enough to buy 86,000 lab coats. If you keep waiting to improve things until someone else has an incident, it’s only a matter of time before your institution is the one that causes everyone else to start scrambling.
Even without a major accident, cost-cutting can do more harm than good. Replacing equipment less often or cutting back on professional development can help you save money in the short-term, but it can cost you in the long run.
When staff and students are forced to conduct research in outdated labs without adequate training and equipment that’s falling apart, research suffers. Another common but harmful source of cost-cutting? Investing in software that doesn't actually meet your needs. Since research is what brings money into your institution, this sets off a vicious cycle of cost-cutting that’s hard to recover from.
You might not notice a difference right away, but chipping away at your safety budget can seriously erode your entire research program’s foundation. It also shows your research community that you see safety as a cost, not an investment. If you do not take safety seriously, you cannot expect your researchers to either.
If you want a good safety program and you want it for less money, then you should expect to spend more time on safety tasks. Why? Because with fewer resources to get the work done, it ends up taking your safety team and researchers longer to complete tasks like data entry, audits, and reporting.
Think of it this way: you wouldn’t ask your groundskeeper to mow the university lawns with a push mower — it might save a few dollars up front, but it would be an enormous waste of resources over time (and likely increase the risk of a worker’s comp claim being filed for a related injury).
Similarly, when your safety team and researchers are asked to complete safety tasks with inefficient tools that frustrate them, their productivity suffers. What ends up happening is that the increased labor costs far outweigh any potential savings you might see from giving them the cheaper tools for the job.
Now, sometimes, doing something more slowly is an acceptable (and even desirable) solution. Not everything has to be done at a lighting pace, and acting like it does will quickly exhaust resources that could be put to good use elsewhere. However, for many safety-related activities, the exposure of risk is directly related to the amount of time it takes to complete the related task. This could be as simple as accessing critical safety data or closing out an inspection finding with a high risk lab.
We all know what can happen when risks are left unattended for too long.
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