Building Laboratory Safety Culture from Tragedy

Presenters Craig Merlic and Jeff Fackler discussed how one laboratory fire death led to changes in PPE and safety in the laboratory setting.

In the education session "How A Laboratory Fire Death Led to a New Safety Initiative," which took place May 21 at the 2018 American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo, speakers Craig Merlic of the University of California, Davis, and Jeff Fackler of DuPont Protection Technologies described how one tragic incident lead to innovations in PPE and lab safety.

Merlic briefly described the December 29, 2008, incident at UCLA in which a woman was working with a hazardous chemical in a laboratory and it caught fire. Because she wasn't wearing a lab coat or flame-resistant materials, she was severely burned and unfortunately passed away.

Merlic noted that lab coats at the time were typically simple white cotton and not flame-resistant. There was "not only a lack of PPE, but a lack of PPE that would have prevented against serious hazards," he said.

This unfortunate death, Merlic said, highlighted the challenges of building a safety culture in an academic laboratory setting, raising questions about PPE, lab coat efficacy, and whether (and how) OSHA standards apply to students in a laboratory. He described developments in lab coats since the 2008 death, including a more widespread use of flame resistant lab coats.

Fackler emphasized that when it comes to selecting and implementing PPE, "everything revolves around the hazard assessment"—in other words, you must first identify hazards in order to adopt the correct PPE to protect against them. He also spoke on the different levels of flame resistance and the way fit must be taking into consideration when wearing PPE; for example, a lab coat that fits too loosely or too tightly can increase the chances of burn injury.

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