In science, some risks are worth the rewards — like the risk of trying a bold, new approach to a problem. These risks can lead to great discoveries and improve the lives of those around us.
Other risks are not worth taking — like the risk of neglecting safety and, specifically, the risk of neglecting proper priorities, practices, and training.
Ignoring these basic principles can have serious consequences for your researchers and your organization as a whole. But fixing them is no simple task.
Lab safety incidents are a frequent occurrence
Every year, hundreds of researchers are injured in laboratories.
What’s worse is that for every high-profile incident, scores of others get relatively little airtime (and those are only the ones that are reported). It's hard to know exactly how often incidents like these occur, since no one agency or association systematically tracks safety incidents and near-misses at academic labs.
What we do know: In a lone report from back in 2011 following an explosion at Texas Tech, the US Chemical Safety Board cited “preliminary information” on 120 different university laboratory incidents over the previous decade.
In other words, at least one significant incident occurred in an academic laboratory every month. And that’s just an extremely conservative estimate from the limited data available. It’s hard not to imagine that the true number of laboratory safety incidents every year could total well into the hundreds.
Prioritizing scientific freedom over safe science can have serious consequences
It’s generally agreed that there's a discrepancy in safety between academic and industrial labs, although again, solid data is scarce. In a recent article examining the difference, Science magazine recently interviewed lab safety experts, including BioRAFT CEO Nathan Watson. The verdict? It all comes down to coordination between priorities, practices, and training. Industry is often able to assemble these three facets in concert, while academic labs usually attempt to or are restricted to implementing them piecemeal.
Faced with pressure to publish papers and compete for limited funding, researchers in academic labs may be more likely to skip safety practices like donning protective gear or completing a risk assessment.
The consequences of laboratory incidents range from minor to life-altering injuries, to loss of property, litigation, reputation damage, and in the most serious cases, death.
Laboratory injuries will often have a dramatic impact on an organization’s bottom line. Statistics from the National Safety Council suggest that a single injury costs organizations on average $32,000. That figure doesn’t even take into account property damage costs, such as the time and expense to repair buildings and replace equipment.
Of course, protecting researchers and students from harm is not just good business practice — it’s also a moral imperative. Laboratory incidents have resulted in life-changing injuries and death, and that’s a cost organizations can’t afford to overlook.
Most lab “accidents” are preventable
Traditionally, organizations have accepted injuries and “accidents” as an unavoidable reality. In part, this may be due to driving factors like budgeting processes that require the use of industry frequencies of incidents, making an injury baseline an accepted norm.
Yet decades of investigative reports show that most lab safety incidents are entirely foreseeable and preventable. Worse yet, they are usually not the fault of a single researcher but rather the result of a systemic failure to prioritize good safety practices and training.
Here’s why that’s significant: We’re facing a paradigm shift where it’s increasingly accepted that events in your labs, whether good or bad, are within your control.
As organizations stop classifying safety incidents as “accidents” (i.e. unexpected spontaneous events) and start viewing them as the avoidable result of poor practices or safety culture, they’re increasingly able to address the underlying issue before it causes an “accident”. And that means improved safety, fewer incidents, and greater accountability.
Watson told Science he sees institutions actively working to improve safety practices in their labs and safety culture across their campuses. It’s no small task.
This new paradigm revolves around three elements that have to be mindfully implemented in concert. It’s not enough to have 2/3, or to have all 3 but have them be disconnected or independent from one another.
- Priorities: Establish shared responsibility for safety at all institutional levels.
- Practices: Apply priorities to develop new expectations and safety standards in all labs.
- Training: Reinforces safe practices as a normal and integral part of the research workflow.
With all three of these mutually reinforcing activities performing together, you may just start to see a resilient safety culture begin to develop, and, more importantly, stick around.
Of course, change is not without its challenges. One roadblock, says Watson, is the fear that improving safety will raise costs, increase administrative burdens, or both. While it may be true that improved safety programs could require a higher budget (which, if we’re being honest, they’ve needed and deserved for years), it is critical to look at the hidden and actual costs of a safety incident when calculating risk.
Priorities, practices, and training are powerful tools against laboratory safety risks. If your organization fails to follow these principles, it can have devastating or fatal consequences for researchers and reputation. And the time where you can claim it was just another “accident” is rapidly dwindling.