The health and safety of your students, staff, visitors, and community is vital to your institution’s success. No matter how good your course offerings, how talented your teaching staff, or how much funding you have, your institution cannot survive without a strong environmental, health, and safety (EHS) program.
EHS helps prevent injuries and illnesses. It strengthens and protects your brand reputation. And it prevents and mitigates costly financial harm to buildings, spaces, and equipment. According to OSHA, every $1 spent on EHS can save your institution $4 to $6.
Investing in EHS people, processes, and systems should be a priority for every institution. That’s especially true for schools that rely on their laboratory research programs to attract top talent and secure funding.
So why does it sometimes feel like EHS is just a big money sink, or something that holds your research program back?
In our experience, your feelings about your EHS program often come down to how well you can conceptualize the risks present at your institution, and how well your EHS team is equipped to address those risks.
If you don’t see your EHS team as a critical and valuable resource, that might be a leading indicator that you’re set up for an incident coming down the pike.
For every risk you can see in the lab, there are a dozen others hiding in plain sight (and even more hiding behind the scenes)
Laboratories are dangerous and risk-prone places. Sharp objects, electricity, and a mélange of harmful chemicals pose a threat at nearly every workstation. If people are handling animals or animal materials, there’s also the risk of bites, scratches, allergens, blood-borne illnesses, or other respiratory exposures.
How well your institution is able to understand and mitigate these risks will determine the success and sustainability of your research program. Even for small startups like growing biotechs, safety administration can quickly outgrow your current solutions.
However, understanding your risks can be a difficult task. Once you know the risks facing your institution, it’s not always obvious what to do about them.
If we’re being honest, unless you’re in EHS, you shouldn’t be getting bogged down in the minutiae of risk management – there are many aspects to making an institution run successfully, and the details of risk management can be a huge time sink.
But that doesn’t mean you can leave your risks unaddressed. And that’s where EHS comes in.
EHS protects your institution from risk
The main benefit of EHS programs is that they help identify risks before they cause an incident such as an injury, illness, environmental disaster, or costly harm to a building or piece of capital equipment. It’s like the old adage goes: “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident.”
EHS programs help you uncover and monitor hazards in your institution and develop a plan to control them or reduce them to an acceptable level. From there, they provide controls (like training and inspections) to reduce the chances of an injury or accident. They’re also responsible for ensuring that your institution complies with complicated safety and environmental standards.
What to do if you have trouble seeing the value of EHS
EHS has to handle risk both on a conceptual scale, and on a staggeringly granular scale, all the while working within the complex environment of laboratory operations.
EHS is a world of hyper-specific details. How can it not be, when two seemingly similar chemicals may have vastly different temperature-dependent explosive properties? Or when the addition of a dissection procedure may cause an illness in an unvaccinated researcher?
One good first step is to just take a member of EHS out for a cup of coffee and ask them some questions about their job and knowledge base. We think you may be surprised at how many expert details they handle, and it will help you form a more sincere appreciation for the specifics they address so you don’t have to.
Is your EHS program dangerously under-resourced?
With the level of granularity required of EHS programs, it’s no wonder that they get quickly bogged down with administrative work and data-gathering. Risk and compliance data in a laboratory environment is created and changes rapidly. While much of the data collected seems like it may not be necessary, we assure you that once you find yourself needing a precise answer to a specific question, there will be no doubt about how critical this data can be.
Research programs have grown far larger and more complicated than they were even 10 years ago. With these changes comes an exponential increase in the work that must be done to mitigate risk and ensure compliance. Unfortunately, the tools EHS once was able to rely on (such as pen and paper, excel, or a home-grown system) can no longer keep up.
Some EHS programs expend a shocking amount of time and effort just trying to stay abreast of the compliance data that needs to be gathered and tracked, let alone all of the mitigating actions, education programs, and inspections that must also be done.
Many EHS professionals feel like they’re struggling to keep their head above water, despite their admirable efforts to keep the individuals at your institution safe.
If you discover that your EHS team is under-resourced, it is essential to work with them, to understand their needs, and to ensure your research program can continue functioning sustainably in a safe environment.
In part 2, we look specifically at three major categories that your EHS team protects: your people, your finances, and your reputation. For now, let’s quickly recap:
- Universities – and particularly those that rely on research programs to attract talent and funding – face a wide range of environmental, health, and safety risks to the sustainability of their operations.
- The primary purpose of EHS is to identify, analyze, prioritize, and manage these risks. This should free you up to focus on big-picture items and area-specific goals instead of being bogged down in the details that EHS lives in.
- Even though you might not be able to see it, there's a lot of hard work happening behind the scenes to create a safe and healthy environment for faculty, staff, students, and visitors. Occasionally, take a moment to really talk with members of your EHS team so you don’t lose sight of just how much they do.