Open Source Training Makes Labs Safer for All
Sharing lab safety training curriculum among organizations to improve safety culture is the right way to improve lab safety for all concerned.
- By Nathan Watson
- Oct 12, 2012
Laboratories are full of hazardous chemicals, dangerous equipment, and infectious biological agents, making safety training a must for people in this profession. Yet developing content, managing training stats, and tracking compliance are time consuming and expensive. Large organizations with big budgets can invest in the people and technologies required to manage this complex issue, but safety training should not be a luxury -– it is a necessity for scientists in organizations of all sizes. BioRAFT has teamed with NH-INBRE and Dartmouth EHS to create an open source-style lab safety training program. This model can and should be replicated to start solving this industry-wide challenge.
Lab Safety at the Forefront
Lab safety is not a new concern. While the majority of accidents in labs are cuts/lacerations, needlesticks, and burns (thermal and chemical), recent fatal accidents have drawn widespread attention. In December 2008, Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old research associate at UCLA, was severely burned while handling a pyrophoric, a class of chemical that ignites upon exposure to air. She died 18 days later. In April 2011, Michele Dufault, an astronomy and physics major at Yale University, died from asphyxia after her hair got caught in a lathe. And in April 2012, Richard Din, a 25-year-old research associate working in a San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center lab, died from a bacterial infection after working with Neisseria meningitidis, a strain of bacteria that causes meningitis.
These illustrate the high risks faced by today's modern labs: Scientific discovery often means working with hazardous chemicals, dangerous equipment, radioactive sources, animals, and pathogenic organisms. Rigorous safety precautions and procedures, including safety training, are crucial not only to prevent injuries and death, but also to mitigate institutional risk: Serious incidents can result in halted projects, federal and state fines, high costs for workers' compensation, ruined reputations, and lawsuits.
Lowering the Barriers
Big pharmaceuticals, biotechs, and universities with large revenues/endowments can afford to develop safety curriculum and invest in technologies that enable them to manage and track compliance. But small organizations struggle to make such investments, and they can benefit from a standardized source of lab-safety training content.
"We, as safety professionals, need to lower the barriers. That means making training accessible to all and making it easier," said Michael Blayney, executive director of the Office for Research Safety at Northwestern University. "Each lab has potentially good material for training. We need to create places where people can access it."
While each organization has organization- and lab-specific training needs, much of the core information on introductory safety training is common to all. This core training is a good place to start sharing and taking advantage of open source training content. This is particularly the case for organizations that hire scientists from other countries. Developing safety training content that is highly effective for all people of all cultures with a variety of primary languages is difficult to achieve. "Scientists get around the world really quickly these days -– we have collaboration everywhere. I meet bright and promising scientists from all over the world, but in my experiences with people from developing countries, they often don't have safety practices that are in line with the requirements of our laws," Blayney said. "We need to think about building consistency in training content not only within the United States, but also around the world."
LabSafetyWorkspace.org: A New Approach to Safety Training
In the summer of 2012, BioRAFT teamed with the New Hampshire IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (NH-INBRE), a collaborative network of 10 two- and four-year colleges within the state, and Dartmouth College Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) to launch LabSafetyWorkspace.org. This online laboratory safety training program provides student scientists and faculty with the knowledge they need to work safely in a lab setting. While launched for New Hampshire-based undergraduate colleges and universities, LabSafetyWorkspace.org is open to scientists worldwide to take introductory safety training courses. The community is also open to course-content contributors, with the goal of building a collective knowledgebase on best practices for laboratory safety.
"A common body of knowledge among scientists is like a currency exchange," said Blayney, who developed the standardized curricula for LabSafetyWorkspace.org when he headed up EHS at Dartmouth College. "An open source approach is easier, more cost effective, and simpler."
This is a model that can work beyond academic labs. LabSafetyWorkspace.org programs outline standards and best practices for laboratory safety in online training courses, enabling scientists to learn sound safety techniques while reducing the need for individual organizations to develop fundamental training offerings. BioRAFT provides an online portal for seamless content delivery and administration. Scientists can take courses at LabSafetyWorkspace.org for free and receive printable certificates upon course-completion. These training records are transferrable and can be validated by any institution. Schools that participate in LabSafetyWorkspace.org agree to recognize certificates as evidence the individual has fundamental knowledge of lab safety best practices.
"Researchers across the 10 schools that participate in our NIH-supported NH-INBRE network can work in each others' labs on collaborative projects and know that the person standing next to them has received the same high-quality lab safety training," said Robert Maue, professor of physiology, neurobiology, and biochemistry at the Giesel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and head of research training for the NH-INBRE. "What we've created here in New Hampshire is a model for working in a research environment that is increasingly collaborative, not only at the state level, but also at the national and international level."
Saint Anselm College is a member institution of NH-INBRE and is using LabSafetyWorkspace.org for safety training for its research students. "It provides us with uniformity across departments and across labs so that everyone is getting the same training, and it provides a documentation trail," explained Derk Wierda, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. "Preventing accidents is always in the forefront of our minds."
Lab Safety for All
Preventing accidents and injury is certainly the most important reason to improve the delivery of lab safety training. However, it is expensive to invest in staff to develop and maintain up-to-date safety training curricula, although the cost is low compared with the potential risk. Unfortunately, not all organizations see it this clearly when they look at their already stretched staff and operating budgets.
Better-funded organizations can gain by sharing lab-safety training materials: Larger organizations hire from and collaborate with smaller organizations and, by contributing to a safety curriculum, they may actually recoup some of their investment.
Finally, the most important reason for labs of all sizes to participate in developing a common approach and method for safety training is moral: Laboratories can be dangerous places, but there is no reason that people should die. When organizations have solid curriculum that demonstrably improves safety and safety culture, they should share it for the good of all.