Lab Safety Is Tackled as a Problem of Behaviors as Much as Standards

Safety advocates have been holding out hope that the unprecedented criminal prosecution of a University of California professor, Patrick G. Harran, might finally persuade researchers to take laboratory safety more seriously.

But the federally chartered National Research Council isn’t waiting to find out.

The council, an independent provider of scientific advice, plans on Wednesday to convene a commission to begin a  yearlong analysis of what steps might help quell a rash of lab accidents on university campuses.

And in a relatively new approach, partly reflecting the circumstances of the Harran case, the study’s director has included
on the commission several behavioral scientists, hoping they’ll help the panel figure out why already-understood safety practices are so often ignored by lab personnel.

“In a lot of ways, when you’re talking about a safety culture, it’s a heavily social-sciences problem,” said the director, Douglas C. Friedman, a program officer at the National Academy of Sciences.  “It’s an institutional- or an organizational-behavior issue, and you really need people who are experts in those issues.”

Hard numbers are especially difficult to compile, in part because of the widespread assumption that many accidents go unreported. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency, counted nearly 120 accidents at university labs in the decade ending in 2011. And the head of Mr. Friedman’s division, Dorothy Zolandz, has said that “anecdotally” the problem appears worse at universities than in industry.

Chief among the anecdotes is the case of Mr. Harran, a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles who faces the possibility of four and a half years in prison at a coming trial over the accidental death of a 23-year-old scientist in his lab. Mr. Harran, the nation’s first faculty member to face felony prosecution over a lab accident, is accused of willfully violating state occupational health and safety laws.

Testimony in the preliminary phases of the case suggested that while the lab rules may not have been perfect, both Mr. Harran and the victim, Sheharbano Sangji, did not always follow them. Ms. Sangji, a staff research assistant, died from burns suffered in December 2008 after she spilled a chemical compound that ignites suddenly when exposed to air. She was not wearing a protective lab-safety coat, and testimony in the case portrayed Mr. Harran as not insistent on such safeguards.

Mr. Harran has repeatedly denied the charges and is fighting them.

Diffuse Responsibility
The National Research Council has chosen as chair of the study commission H. Holden Thorp, the departing  chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is moving this summer to become provost and a professor of chemistry and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s among several chemistry professors on the 13-member panel.

The vice chairman will be David M. DeJoy, a professor emeritus of health promotion and behavior at the University of Georgia. Others with backgrounds in behavioral science include Karlene H. Roberts, a professor emeritus of business at the University of California at Berkeley who studies organizational risk, and several representatives of private industry and federal agencies.

Some of the need for a response based on behavioral research may already be seen at UCLA, where the university toughened lab-safety rules after Ms. Sangji’s death, only to have some researchers resist the rules as unnecessarily intrusive. “There was a lot of skepticism” among faculty members, said James H. Gibson, assistant vice chancellor for environment, health, and safety at UCLA.

While still rare, the inclusion of social scientists in crafting responses to such problems is slowly gaining acceptance, Ms. Roberts said. Those changes are occurring on study commissions, including those chartered by the National Academies, and on government accident-investigation boards, she said.

“Only recently, within the last few years, have these people recognized that this isn’t all that causes a serious accident or that keeps the place really running safe,” Ms. Roberts said, referring to written rules and regulations. “It’s what the people do in the organization that has something to do with causing the accidents.”

Ms. Roberts looks for lessons from “high reliability” organizations such as the Federal Aviation Administration, whose air-traffic controllers have a remarkable safety record over all. The FAA’s examples of successful tactics include emphasizing redundancy, in which supervisors literally stand behind controllers and watch them manage traffic flows.

As a more general rule, however, successful organizations have leaders who insist on safety from the top of the managerial chain, she said. And that may be one area where universities, with their culture of diffuse responsibility, are institutionally weaker than corporations are, Mr. DeJoy said.

He cautioned, however, that it’s just a theory, as the notion that industrial labs are safer than their university  counterparts is so far based largely on anecdote.

Clear Problems
The National Academies had hoped for better answers by the time the commission began its work. The University of California’s Center for Laboratory Safety, formed in 2011 as part of UCLA’s response to Ms. Sangji’s death, worked with a private laboratorysafety consultant, BioRAFT, to survey lab managers worldwide on the best safety practices.

Initial results of the survey, published this year and based on more than 2,300 responses, showed some clear problems. More than 90 percent said that people sometimes worked alone in their labs, and 40 percent of junior respondents said supervisors did not regularly check on their safety performance.

But more than two-thirds of the survey responses came from universities and only 8 percent from industry. That pattern left the president and chief executive of BioRAFT, Nathan P. Watson, unable to tell the commission whether he’s sure that corporate labs are the better model.

Still, he said, the preliminary data suggest that may be the case, corresponding with the anecdotal sense that the less-hierarchical nature of universities leaves them more vulnerable in matters such as safety.

“When you’re in a lab in academia,” said Mr. Watson, a former research associate at both the University of California at San Francisco and Dartmouth College, “you don’t see the vice president of research walking around very often.”
Mr. Gibson, who also serves as executive director of the university’s Center for Laboratory Safety, said he too  understands issues of culture and leadership. But he said he considers the problem—at least in the free-thinking atmosphere of a university—primarily a matter of data.

Skeptical faculty members demanded proof that UCLA’s new safety procedures would make a real difference. And when he went to find it for them, “it wasn’t there,” Mr. Gibson admitted. The center’s primary mission, therefore, is to gather evidence, conduct research, and get it published in peer-reviewed journals, so faculty members will listen, he said.

“They’re scientists, they want facts, they want you to prove it to them,” Mr. Gibson said. “That’s just the way they operate, that’s the way they think.”

– Paul Basken

Posted May 15, 2013. 

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.