Safety Culture of University Labs Scrutinized

"Taken for Granted: Building a Culture of Safety," written by Beryl Lieff Benderly, asks whether researchers are focused sufficiently on safety. It discusses Cal/OSHA penalties assessed in May 2009 against UCLA in connection with the Jan. 16, 2009, death of a research assistant.

A worrisome look inside the safety of university science labs is currently featured on the online site of Science Careers, which is associated with the journal Science. Titled "Taken for Granted: Building a Culture of Safety," the article written by Beryl Lieff Benderly of Washington, D.C., discusses Cal/OSHA penalties assessed in May 2009 against UCLA in connection with the Jan. 16, 2009, death of research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji. She succumbed to burn injuries suffered on Dec. 29, 2008, after her clothing caught fire as she transferred a pyrophoric chemical from one container to another.

Benderly has followed this story closely for Science Careers. Sangji was not wearing PPE or a lab coat, according to the coverage, which notes that UCLA announced May 4 it would not contest or appeal the $31,875 fine.

Benderly's latest article quotes lab safety experts about the state of safety in university laboratories. PPE is not frequently used in some university labs, where the culture prizes individual creativity. One expert urges lab workers to speak up forcefully whenever they see a colleague working in an unsafe manner.

UCLA's May 4 statement quoted Chancellor Gene Block: "In the wake of Sheri's tragic accident, I communicated to the UCLA community plans for a comprehensive review of our laboratory inspection programs and implementation of revised procedures to ensure the safety of our researchers. Although substantial progress has already been made, we will continue to thoroughly monitor and assess our lab training and safety protocols as an integral component of our daily operations. The Cal/OSHA report will provide critical assistance with these ongoing efforts. As we continue to mourn Sheri's death and grieve for her family, we are determined to rededicate ourselves to ensuring the safety of each and every member of our entire Bruin family."

The statement listed these improvements as having been completed by that date:

  • "Flame-resistant lab coats have been purchased and are being distributed to laboratory personnel in the department of chemistry and biochemistry who work with flammable materials. Other labs will be required to make coats available whenever high-risk activities are performed."
  • "The UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) now requires each laboratory to quantify chemical, biological and other hazards; assess potential risks based on lab activities; and specify applicable protective equipment. As part of the assessment, labs also are required to train all personnel in the use of protective equipment specific to the lab activities and to provide written documentation to EH&S. While this work continues, assessments have so far been completed for more than 500 laboratories, and training has been provided to nearly 1,400 lab personnel. Plans call for labs to be categorized based on potential risk and for those with the greatest risk to receive more rigorous follow-up."
  • "EH&S now lists a greater number of potential hazards on inspection forms and reports, specifically notes critical violations, and, for those violations, requires corrective action and reinspection within 48 hours, substantially shortening follow-up time."
  • "EH&S also provides inspection reports to lab directors within one business day of inspections, reducing the previous typical timeline of up to two weeks."
  • "The campus has updated standard operating procedures for the handling of pyrophorics such as the t-butyl lithium that ignited in the Dec. 29 accident. Now called 'safe operating procedures,' they include added safety precautions that significantly exceed industry standards. In addition, the campus is in the process of developing updated operating procedures for other high-risk chemicals and materials."

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