Developing a Culture of Safety in Biomedical Research Training

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In this episode of Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Jyllian N. Kemsley, manager of C&E News’ Safety Zone, and Dr. Craig A. Merlic, executive director of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, discuss common underlying factors in lab accidents and the roles of multiple stakeholders in improving safety in lab settings. They also recommend relevant resources and tools for developing a culture of safety.

The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on November 5, 2020, with NIGMS host and director Dr. Jon Lorsch. A Q&A session with webinar attendees followed Dr. Kemsley and Dr. Merlic’s talk.

Recorded on November 5, 2020

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Podcast Transcript: Developing a Culture of Safety in Biomedical Research Training


Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Welcome, everybody, to this webinar that NIGMS is hosting. I’m Jon Lorsch, the director of NIGMS, and it’s my pleasure to welcome everyone here.

I want to go ahead in just a second and introduce our speakers, but first let me just quickly tell you how this is going to work. We’re going to have two talks by the distinguished speakers we have here on the topic of improving the culture of laboratory safety. And then we’ll have an open Q&A session.

So let me go ahead and introduce our speakers. The first is Dr. Craig Merlic, who is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA and is the executive director of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety. His main research focuses include transition metal catalysis, synthetic strategies toward strain macrocycles, and organometallic synthesis. He received his B.S. from the University of California, Davis and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Center for Lab Safety was established in March 2011 in the wake of a fatal lab accident at UCLA in 2008 that Craig will probably mention. Craig actively promotes safety at UCLA and in the University of California system, chairing several safety committees and directing an information technology group creating safety software tools for use at all 10 university campuses.

Our second speaker is Dr. Jyllian Kemsley. She is the executive editor, policy and content partnerships at the American Chemical Society’s flagship publication, Chemical & Engineering News, or C&E News, and the manager of C&E News’s Safety Zone blog.

She received a B.A. in chemistry from Amherst College, a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In her executive editor role, Jyllian covers science policy in areas such as the environment, energy, pharmaceuticals, food, worker safety, intellectual property, and research policy. The Safety Zone blog covers chemical safety issues in academic and industrial research labs, as well as in manufacturing.

So thanks to both of you for agreeing to participate in this, and I will turn it over to you. Craig, are you going first?

Dr. Craig Merlic:

I’m going to let Jyllian go first.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Jyllian’s going to go first. Perfect.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

I’m going to go first, so let me share here. OK, well thank you to everyone for being here and possibly taking a break from pressing refresh on the election results.

I’m going to start off by talking about safety in labs that use chemicals. And I phrased it that way deliberately, because there are an awful lot of labs that use chemicals but don’t think they’re doing chemistry. And they may not be. They may be using chemicals just as solvents or something like that, but the chemicals are still there.

I’m going to talk through a few incidents that I’ve covered and what I see are the common themes among them, and then I will pass it over to Craig, who’s going to talk about the role of the PI in ensuring good safety culture.

To start off, I’m going to talk about the fire at UCLA. The technician involved was Sheri Sangji. She was 23 years old. She had just gotten her bachelor’s degree a few months earlier. She was hired as a technician to install and get up and running some analytical instrumentation, also to do a little bit of synthesis. She was injured in a laboratory fire at the end of 2008, and she died of her injuries about 2 1/2 weeks later.

On the day of the fire, so she had just started the previous October. This was the second time she was doing this particular synthesis. And it involved a reagent that’s a pyrophoric, meaning it ignites spontaneously in air. This was the second time she was doing it and she scaled up considerably to an amount that most people would not consider doing in a laboratory environment.

So this is some of the safety information from the safety data sheet on tert-butyllithium, that reagent, and you can see that the concerns about it, the safety concerns, are very obvious—highly flammable liquid and vapor, catches fire spontaneously if exposed to air.

In the top right here, this is how you should be handling that particular reagent. It’s a liquid in a sealed bottle, so you clamp that, and you run an inert gas line in, use an airtight syringe with a needle that reaches to the bottom of the bottle, two hands on the syringe. And you generally don’t want to pull the plunger more than halfway up; you want to leave yourself that buffer for safety.

It’s unclear how Sheri was trained to do this particular operation. She was told to ask a postdoc for help, and when that postdoc was interviewed by investigators later, he said he couldn’t remember what he had told her, but when asked about the procedure more generally, he said, “Should you clamp the bottle? Yes Did I do it? No.” He also described pulling the plunger all the way up on the syringe.

So most likely the example she had in terms of training was a poor one. The other thing is that day she was using a 60-milliliter syringe. Here’s a reminder of how big that is for people. And the bottle wasn’t clamped, so chances are good that she was holding the bottle in one hand and trying to manipulate a 60-milliliter syringe with the other. The plunger came out of the barrel, and the reagent ignited, and Sheri’s clothes caught on fire.

There was a postdoc in the lab with her. What he described was hearing a scream, seeing her on fire. She was panicking, which is a normal response to having her clothes be on fire, but she did not go to the shower that was in the lab. She did not stop, drop, and roll. The postdoc tried to use a lab coat to wrap around her to put out the fire and then started pouring tap water on her.

When her adviser got to the lab, he found her sitting in the floor with the postdoc pouring water on her. “Her clothing from the waist up was largely burned off and large blisters were forming on her abdomen and hands—the skin seemed to be separating from her hands.”

If you want to know more detail on what I at least was able to piece together about what happened here, that’s the UCLA fire link on the slide. This set off a lot of changes within the UC system—some driven by the district attorney. Both UC and the professor, the adviser, were charged criminally for the incident. Both of those cases were settled. But if you want to know a little more about the UC changes, that’s at the UC safety link.

At Texas Tech University, here we had a senior graduate student who was synthesizing explosives as part of a Department of Homeland Security project. Because they were working with explosives, the lab ostensibly had a maximum limit of 200 milligrams that you could make at any one time.

This graduate student, who was training a junior graduate student at the time, a first-year, was having trouble getting consistent characterization results off of different equipment, and so he wanted to make more to be able to do all of the tests on one batch. Reasonable scientific thing to want to do. He scaled up to 10 grams, which again is not something anyone in an academic laboratory should be doing.

After doing synthesis, he took half of it; it was lumpy. He thought it was safe to grind in a mortar and pestle if it was wet with a solvent, and it blew up in his hands. And he was in the middle of the lab, no glass shield, no protective equipment.

He lost three fingers and permanently injured his eyes. That’s probably lucky in terms of the result that could have come from this.

Another point about this case is that other people in the lab knew he was scaling up, but no one spoke up about it, even though there was a clear risk to them. Had someone been standing next to him or on the other side of this bench, they could have easily been hurt also. And link for more details if anyone is interested.

At the University of Minnesota, here was a graduate student synthesizing acetyltrimethyl silane, 200 grams of it. When making this in the past, he’d had trouble with clumping while the reaction was going on, so they switched the solvent to polyethylene glycol, or PEG. And one of the reagents involved in this is sodium azide, which when it comes into contact with water, it will form hydrazoic acid.

PEG is hygroscopic, so if you combine sodium azide with a solvent that can pull in a lot of water, you do risk forming hydrazoic acid. The sodium azide could also have reacted directly with the PEG. So going back to that hydrazoic acid point, hydrazoic acid is an unstable explosive, has some other issues, too, but the explosive part is probably the biggest concern.

So on the day the incident happened, the graduate student was actually on his way out of the lab to lunch. He walked by his hood. He realized that the reaction had stopped stirring. He reached into the hood, and it exploded at that point. Whether he’d formed hydrazoic acid or whether because the whole thing had stopped stirring and clumped together, we had some localized heating that blew it up, it’s a little unclear. Consistent with what you expect if someone is reaching into a hood, his arm and his side were injured, and he needed surgery to remove the glass.

At UC Berkeley, this was a graduate student who had synthesized a diazonium compound and then wanted to look at how different counter ions affected the properties. Fairly common thing to do, but in this particular case, he decided to include perchlorate as one of the counter ions.

And here’s from PubChem on perchlorate. This is perchlorate as the ion, not as a salt of something else, but again you’ve got “may cause fire or explosion.” It’s a strong oxidizer. Hazards here are documented and well known.

What happened in this case is that he got all the way through the synthesis fine. It was at the very end where he had it in a funnel and was scraping it out with a metal spatula; he’d taken off his eye protection, and it blew up in his hands. And if we go back, we can see this is what happened to his regular glasses. One lens is completely gone, and the other one has a hole blown through it. He needed eye surgery and had some facial lacerations, although no permanent damage.

And then lastly, from the University of Hawaii, this is a situation where you’ve probably heard of the fire triangle but maybe not really thought about how it might apply to what you’re doing in the lab. The basic idea of the fire triangle is if you combine oxygen, heat, and fuel, you can ignite. You put all those things in one place and essentially you have a bomb.

So this particular lab was actually growing microbes to make biofuels, and they were feeding the bugs a mixture of 55% hydrogen, 28% oxygen, and 7% carbon dioxide. So hydrogen is your fuel, oxygen is your oxygen, and all you need is some form of heat there to set that off. They had had a problem previously with a smaller tank, I think it was 3-ish liters, where a static shock had set off what they called a small internal explosion. That should have been a heads up that you need to rethink what you’re doing here, but it wasn’t.

So on the day of the incident, we had a 49-liter tank with that gas mixture at about 117 psi and most likely— and this was an investigation done by the Center for Laboratory Safety, so Craig can correct me if I get anything wrong here—but the conclusion from that was that it was probably a very small static shock, so small that possibly she didn’t even realize it had happened, that set off that explosion. That’s the remains of the tank that you see on the screen. The lab was pretty much destroyed, and the postdoctoral researcher lost one of her arms and also damaged her hearing.

So some of the common themes that I see in these and in other cases is that the hazards are known and well documented. I included the safety data sheets from PubChem and things here to demonstrate that the information’s there, people. But you need to look for it and read it, and that should be part of your safety culture is doing that hazard assessment of the stuff that you’re working with.

I do sometimes hear from people, “Well, we’re working with new stuff. We’re researchers and don’t always know.”

Again, a lot of the reagents that are the problem here, the risks are well known, and I would argue if you really are working with something unknown, that’s a reason to be that much more careful with what you’re doing. In all of these cases, also a reasonable scientific justification for the experiment they were doing but did not do that risk assessment.

So here’s a quote from then-chair of University of Minnesota chemistry department Bill Tolman, “There was a real reason to use PEG as the solvent to try to stop the clumping, but they hadn’t thought through that there might be problems with doing that, especially at a 200-gram scale.”

The other thing is something that I like to call “training by telephone.” I did this as an exercise probably in elementary or middle school where you sit in a circle, and one person whispers something to the person next to them, and they whisper to the person next to them, and by the time you get all the way around the circle, whatever the starting message was, it’s completely garbled. That’s what happens when your laboratory training is done just by passing information from one person to another—say the PI when they start to their first generation of grad students and postdocs and on down the line. You don’t have any quality control.

So this is an excerpt here from the UCLA investigation, the postdoc who, in theory, trained Sheri is like, “Yeah, there was no SOP. It was just sort of passed on, either me watching someone else or someone telling me how to do it.” Likewise, if you think about Texas Tech, you had a senior graduate student thinking it’s perfectly fine to scale up to 10 grams while training a junior graduate student.

And then lastly, a lack of personal protective equipment. Now that is last because it should be last. You think about the hierarchy of controls. You need to get those elimination and substitution and engineering controls in place. PPE is your last line of defense.

And that’s where safety culture comes in a lot is are we doing those hazard and risk assessments? Are we eliminating hazards or substituting where we can? Are we putting in the appropriate controls? And then again at the end, personal protective equipment.

Last thing very, very quickly. This is a bit tangential to safety culture, but we published a story this week about graduate students essentially not being eligible for worker’s compensation and being on the hook for hundreds or thousands of dollars if they get hurt while working in a laboratory. You really don’t have any protection for those medical bills. So something to, perhaps, start asking your own departments about.

And with that, I will pass it over to Craig.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Thank you, Jyllian. So let me go ahead and share my screen.

So I’d like to address some concepts more related to the safety culture as we go through this talk. And so we’re going to start off talking about four themes.

But before I start off there, I’d like to call out this article that was published by Jon and coworkers on developing a culture of safety in biomedical research training. So this article was very nice in covering a broad set of issues and can be sort of a starting point for both researchers and administrators and PIs in looking at their institution and their programs and seeing are they missing anything that needs to be covered to try and have a safe work environment.

And so the first few themes of what I like to talk about when I address lab safety is first off there’s no easy approach to improving lab safety and creating a culture of safety. It takes a very strong commitment and effort by people at every level of institutions—so the chancellor or president of the university, through the deans and administrators, down to the PI in particular and then down to the researchers in the labs, so the graduate students, undergraduate researchers, and postdoctoral scholars.

It takes strong effort by everyone. And then most every institution has some form of environmental health and safety office or department, and they are really fabulous people, and they perform many essential functions and help set policies. But really safety outcomes are very dependent on safety engagement by the lab PI. And so at UCLA I work a lot with the EH&S office, but when it comes to lab safety, it’s critical that it be done at the lab level.

And Jyllian mentioned some interesting accidents. And actually if you go through those accidents in a detailed way, the sort of standard institutional EH&S policies may not have prevented those accidents, so it’s really at the lab level that it’s critical to address lab safety.

Then the next two themes, or the bottom two here, regulatory compliance should not be the end goal of a workplace safety program, but rather, the outcome of a strong culture of safety. So it turns out that institutions have metrics involving safety programs, and EH&S often times comes in and looks for compliance issues—so for example, the existence of chemical inventory and proper storage of chemicals and recording of safety trainings by people.

But actually those specific actions don’t necessarily prevent incidents and injuries; it’s actually what goes on in the lab, how chemicals are handled, how operations are done, how centrifuges and other energetic pieces of equipment are run that determines lab safety.

And then finally, strong safety programs aim to prevent injuries while supporting cutting-edge science. Sometimes there’s a feeling that safety can get in the way of accomplishing the science, but really at the end of the day, science done well is science done safely. If you think about a sloppy researcher, do you trust their results scientifically? But it’s the same thing for safety. A sloppy researcher may not have safe lab practices.

So really science done well is science done safely. So when I think about safety, I typically think about a laboratory safety triad. So we spend a lot of time talking about safety programs, and safety programs include things like EH&S actions, using SOPs that Jyllian mentioned, PPE usage that was just talked about, safety training. But they tie into the safety culture, so what are the overall actions by researchers in the labs and what is the safety leadership shown and done by everyone in the institution?

And then these two combine to address, really, the safety outcomes. And we saw some terrible examples in the last few minutes. So what types of incidents occur? Where do they occur? When do they occur? And why did they occur? And so it’s critically important that institutions actually keep track of safety outcomes, discuss them, discuss safety outcomes at other institutions as a way of avoiding them in the future. So this is the safety triad.

What I’d like to do is dive into the safety culture side, since we just saw some excellent examples of safety programs and safety outcomes. Safety culture. We can define it as the values, beliefs, and behaviors resulting in a collective commitment to safety by everyone in an organization. There’s many inputs and outputs for safety culture—and some of the points are shown here. But really, it’s involvement by everyone and a quality involvement.

You can have the most outstanding set of SOPs—Safe Operating Procedures or Standard Operating Procedures—but if no one is following them, then that’s pointless. Or you can have verbal statements by people in appropriate positions, but if there’s not follow-through, then you’re also not going to have a safe organization. So really, it’s a combination of what you have and how you live it that results in the safety culture.

And we want to have a strong safety culture to do outstanding, cutting-edge science in a safe manner. So my group, one of the things we’ve done recently is conducted a safety culture survey to try and look at the state of laboratory safety culture in some institutions, identify factors that influence the safety culture, determine the strengths and weaknesses of safety programs, and then identify factors that correlate with injuries.

So our overall goal is to use data to drive improvements in laboratory safety, practices, culture, and outcomes. We looked at more than 1,000 researchers at four R1 universities. They ended up being about 50/50 male/female. The majority were in health and life sciences, and the others were in physical sciences, engineering. And we had about a 80/20 split between researchers/trainees and PIs.

So what were some of the outcomes that we found? So one was that there is a perception gap when discussing experiment safety. So when we asked the PIs a question about whether they discuss with their lab group how to conduct experiments safely, 89% of the PIs agreed or strongly agreed that they discuss how to conduct experiments safely. But the trainees and staff had a slightly different view.

Answering the question, “My PI discusses with me how to conduct experiments safely,” only 66% agree or strongly agree. So we need to have better communication within the labs. PIs need to do a better job communicating with the trainees about laboratory safety.

And as I’ll show in the next couple slides, it’s critically important for the safety outcomes experienced by the researchers. Then one correlation we did is we correlated PI safety recognition with the trainee and staff safety behavior and also attitudes. I’m a chemist, so I like to look at actions and reactions.

So here’s PI actions here. So safety is recognized by the PI, is somewhat neutral, or the PI does not recognize and promote safety. And then here’s the trainees’ and staff reactions here. “People in my lab incorporate safety measures into their experimental protocols.” OK. That’s a very good thing to do, as we just saw from Jyllian’s talk.

And yet, for researchers whose PI recognizes safety, almost 90% do incorporate safety measures, but for researchers whose PI does not recognize safety, only 36% of the researchers incorporate safety measures into the experimental protocols. So what we see is a clear dependence on safety behaviors by researchers dependent on the PIs. This is at institutions where all the researchers, all the PIs, have the same environmental health and safety office, the same rules, but we can see that the behavior depends on the actions of the PI.

Over here, we see something about attitudes.

The question was to the trainees, “The time devoted to compliance with laboratory safety regulations is appropriate and valuable.” And so we can see that the attitude toward safety among the researchers is dependent on the PI actions. For those researchers whose PI recognized safety, 80% thought safety compliance was a reasonable thing to do, but conversely then, for researchers whose PI did not recognize safety, only 29% thought the time devoted to compliance was appropriate and valuable, and so I worry about the safety of those researchers. Another correlation. We’re looking at correlating PI safety recognition with the behavior and attitudes related to reporting a minor injury or a near miss.

And so a minor injury, those may occur, but they could be precursors to major injuries. And a near miss could be a precursor to a serious event. So as Jyllian mentioned in Hawaii, literally the day before a major accident the lab had a near miss, which is defined as “an incident where no one was injured,” and a roughly 2-liter vessel had an explosion inside it. And the lab did not analyze that near miss but instead went on to a scale-up experiment that resulted in a tragic accident.

It’s important the labs discuss minor injuries and near misses and that they’re reported, but let’s see whether that will occur. And so we see again the PI action. Are they holding safety discussions weekly? Monthly? Only quarterly or maybe yearly or never?

And then we can see the trainee and staff reactions here. So in the groups that discussed safety often, 70% to 80% then report minor injuries and near misses, but for research groups where safety is never discussed, then 40% to 50% would report minor injuries and near misses. Lab safety discussions correlate with incident reporting, which can lead to better safety practices.

What about safety outcomes? So safety outcomes, we’re going to define those as actual injuries. And can we correlate the PI and trainees’ actions and attitudes and behaviors with these outcomes? We previously looked at some major injuries, but today let’s look at some minor injuries.

So here we’re looking at correlating the results of fewer minor injuries are reported when trainees/staff report risk assessments. The statement put to people was, “People in my lab consider safety procedures before conducting a new or scaled-up experiment.” And so if they agree with that statement, we can see that 70% have no minor injuries, and only 7% have more than one minor injury. But for the group of researchers who disagree with the statement—that is, they’re not considering safety procedures before conducting a new or scaled-up experiment—only 46% don’t have any minor injuries, and almost four times as many have more than one minor injury.

So we’re correlating the injuries with the performance of risk assessments. As Jyllian mentioned, at the University of Hawaii, that accident not only was there a near miss the day before, but the postdoctoral scholar had come from England, which has a strong culture of safety at many of their research universities, and she was actually used to conducting risk assessments in her training in England.

But when she went to the University of Hawaii, she actually asked her professor about doing a risk assessment for this experiment involving a mixing of hydrogen and oxygen gas, and the PI said, “No, we don’t need to worry about doing a risk assessment.” But it was something that she had actually thought of. She asked about doing it, and it was not done, and then we saw the tragic consequence.

And then what about minor injuries here correlating with the PI discussing experimental safety? The statement was, “My mentor/professor discusses with me how to conduct experiments safely.” And for researchers who agreed with that statement, 73% had no minor injuries, and only 7% had more than one minor injury. But for the researchers who disagreed with the statement, there was again almost a tripling of the number of researchers who had more than one minor injury.

So we can correlate then safety recognition by the PI with injuries in the labs. So what is PI engagement? What should PIs be doing? PIs need to be discussing with students and staff how to conduct experiments safely. They need to require students and staff to consider safety procedures before they conduct a new or scaled-up experiment. The PIs need to teach hazard identification, risk assessment, critically illustrated by the Hawaii incident. PIs need to monitor student safety practices.

So the Texas Tech incident involved a scale up that should not have been done by the student. PIs need to regularly discuss safety in lab meetings. And in research groups where there are no incidents occurring, that’s fabulous, but they need to draw upon incidents at other labs or other universities as discussion points to lead the safety discussions.

There are lessons-learned sites. There’s a number available at my own site, at the Center for Laboratory Safety. PIs need to wear proper PPE when in the lab, and they need to exemplify proper safety protocols at all times. It’s oftentimes the PIs who are saying things like, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Well, that’s not appropriate. We need to have appropriate behavior by the PIs at all times to exemplify what should be done.

So to conclude my very brief comments here, there’s no magic bullet for lab safety. It’s a multipronged set of actions required at every administrative level. And again, I would like to reference Jon’s nice article that outlines many key points. And then engagement by faculty is a critically important action with a documented impact on safety. It reduces injuries and promotes a culture of safety, and we cannot rely just on environmental health and safety offices to ensure the safety of our researchers.

And then also, as illustrated by Jyllian, experiments must be designed and conducted with safety planning. Safer experiments constitute better science. So that concludes my key points.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Excellent. Thank you so much to both of you. I think that was extremely clear and illuminating.

Jyllian, you kind of touched on this, but I think there is sometimes a perception in the life sciences field that this is more of a chemistry problem. A lot of the examples you gave were chemistry departments. To both of you, is this mostly a chemistry problem or are there lots of examples of tragic accidents and near misses happening in the biological sciences as well?

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

There are certainly examples in the biological sciences. I write for chemists, so those are the examples I know best. But Jon, I think in your paper you actually mentioned one that involved some sort of pathogen that people had thought had been disabled—I can’t think of the right word off the top of my head—neutralized maybe?

But when given the opportunity to infect someone who had a particular disorder, the pathogen adapted, as we know they do. And if I remember correctly, that person died. So yeah, they definitely occur in other cases.

I think what I want the biomedical community to be mindful of is that you are using chemicals. Even if you think you’re not doing chemistry, you’re still using chemicals, and those can still cause problems. Maybe they’re toxicological rather than explosive. But also that some of the more biological things that I didn’t get into can present a problem also. Craig, do you have anything you want to add?

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Sure. I’d like to point out that there are hazards in nearly every area of research, except maybe computational.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Oh no, repetitive stress injuries there.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Yeah, it’s critically important that even the biological researchers address lab safety, and so there are, sadly, incidents that have occurred. Some ones that I am familiar with: Eye injuries. So it’s often common in biomedical researchers, especially in academic labs, that they don’t wear eye protection, and so there have been serious injuries to the eye because people were not wearing eye protection.

There’s also burn injuries are relatively common among the researchers who are doing a sterilization technique where they take the wire loop and put it in ethanol and then the Bunsen burner and transfer the bacteria. The Erlenmeyer flasks of ethanol have been knocked over and people have been seriously burned from that.

And the infections from hazardous biological agents. Just recently there was a research lab that was working with HIV, and the test tube shattered inside the centrifuge and spread HIV throughout the centrifuge. So there’s a number of hazardous situations. So safety is something that everyone should be addressing at the institution and not just chemists.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

I’d like to reemphasize something on eye protection too, because we, as a news organization, reject several photos a week because someone has taken a photograph of someone who is obviously in a lab—and I will get that they’re in a bio lab, and there’s a shelf behind them of large chemical containers. We won’t run them, because our standard for photos is that if you are in a lab, you have eye protection on. Lab coat—situational. Gloves—situational. But if you are in a lab, you have eye protection on and we, like I said, several times a week we reject photos. If you are that concerned about your clothes that you’re putting on a lab coat, or that concerned about your hands that you’re putting on gloves, you need to protect your eyes.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Craig, do you want to mention lab coats? Because that’s something I learned from you which I didn’t know, the difference between the standard cotton white lab coats and more modern ones.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Yeah, it’s amazing to me that lab coats were invented more than 150 years ago, but just in the last 20 years there’s been tremendous advances in lab coat materials. And so there are cotton lab coats, polyester lab coats, which provide little or no protection to fire. But now there are treated coats that provide flame resistance. But then the latest lab coats actually provide not only flame resistance but also chemical protection.

In a biological lab, it’s common to be working with maybe some aqueous basic solutions, or aqueous acidic solutions, or solutions involving carcinogens, toxins, things like that. And the latest lab coats actually have a barrier that prevents polar materials from penetrating the coat. So it actually could provide protection against acids, bases, and polar solutions of toxins and carcinogens.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

I had no idea all these years we’ve been wearing lab coats that could catch fire if you spilled flaming ethanol on them, or if you spilled ethidium bromide, it would go right through.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

I also just dropped in the chat, C&EN reviewed several different types of chemical splash goggles, and I just dropped the link to that in the chat, if anyone is interested.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Great. Thank you. Take a few from the Q&A because there are quite a bunch coming in now. The first one says, “Hi, Craig and Jyllian. What recommendations do you have for guidance to reviewers (so this would be reviewers of training grants) related to evaluation of how training programs prepare students to evaluate risk and work safely?”

The background here is NIGMS is now emphasizing that as one of the important areas in our training grant applications, and reviewers are being asked to look at how programs are preparing students in terms of the things you’re talking about. How would you, if you were advising reviewers, think about that, getting appropriate information, and what would you emphasize?

Dr. Craig Merlic:

I would say that it should be regular and ongoing. So the idea that you can bring in trainees and give them, the day they walk in the door, a three-hour introduction to safety, and then consider them to be trained, is ludicrous. You need to have a program that has active engagement at multiple levels so that, yes, when trainees come in the door, yes, they should get some training, but then it should be ongoing. And it should be multifaceted.

There’s the generic training that EH&S might be able to provide, but also the lab-specific training. So research labs need to be doing things. And then maybe some training at the department level. And it should be ongoing, so annual, or more frequently, and it should be engaging, so that the students get a variety of modalities in the training. That’s what I’d like to see is not just a single three-hour course at the beginning but rather an ongoing, sustained program.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Jyllian, do you have anything to add to that?

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Just that it’s also really important to remember that lab-specific training is key. No general EH&S training is going to cover the specific stuff that someone is going to be doing when they get into the meat of their experiments. So if you assume that EH&S safety training is going to cover everything students need to know, that’s not the case. No general safety training, for example, is going to include the specifics—Sorry, the noise is the printer, which is in my office. The kids are printing something for school. Think about what lab-specific activities, the specific properties of an infectious agent or whatever, that the PI needs to make sure they expand upon for that particular group.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

That seems very important that there is the didactic part of the curriculum and there is the mentored part of the curriculum, and they need to somehow connect and amplify and dig down, as Craig said. That dovetails very nicely into the next question, which is about, “How can EH&S staff promote this culture of laboratory safety?” Given Craig’s point and your point, Jyllian, you can’t just do one training at the beginning. And EH&S has one important role, but there’s an awful lot more to it. But how can they be connected into the process in a maybe more meaningful way? Is there a way?

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Yeah, there’s lots of things EH&S can and should be doing. It’s critical that they be seen as collaborators to facilitate cutting-edge science and not the policemen. Too often, EH&S might come in to do safety inspections in the lab and then sometimes the researchers actually flee the lab, and that’s the worst thing. You want to have collaboration. So EH&S should always be meeting with researchers and labs when they do inspections.

EH&S should engage the researchers to find out what type of research they’re doing. Ask the researchers what they feel to be the most hazardous operations that they’re doing, and then have discussions and communications to try and engage those topics. And so I think the most important thing is for EH&S to be seen and to actively work to be collaborators promoting the science—safe science.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Do either of you know of any models where EH&S has been brought in to the curriculum part of graduate education, for example, so they’re not just the three hours at the beginning and then the police force, but maybe there’s a collaboration in teaching as the curriculum goes along? Has that been explored?

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

I think there are a couple, but they’re mostly smaller schools, not big research universities. Craig, I don’t know if you’ve got any others.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

It depends on the school. I know at UCLA, where I work, so I teach a course; it’s titled “Safety in Chemical and Biochemical Research,” and actually I bring in people from EH&S to give presentations. And I know at some of the other schools EH&S is engaged in some of the training at the department level, and that’s one of the ways that EH&S can better establish connections with the students. If they come in and make presentations and be part of the safety training, then the students, from an early point, can see members of EH&S and the perspectives and goals of EH&S.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

So another question. Craig, this is for you. “What’s your schedule checking in with labs?” But I think Jyllian could probably comment on this as well. “And what’s the best approach to involving the labs themselves in improving their safety culture?”

Dr. Craig Merlic:

I think I’m catching the gist of the question. And so it’s really important that the researchers, the students, get really engaged in lab safety. And one of my favorite political comments is that when the people lead, the leaders will follow. We’ve seen a number of institutions that have really great student organizations, student-led safety organizations.

I think a pioneering one was at University of Minnesota, but now there’s a number of universities, R1 universities around the nation where there are actually student-led organizations focusing on safety. So that’s one of the things that can be done, and that can be institution-wide. So I’ve seen departments start it, graduate students within one department, then it spreads to the university.

But also within a research group. I think the students bring up in a research group meeting, “Oh, by the way, this issue came up with me this week. I had this problem.” Or, “By the way, this was recently reported in the literature. I think since we do this hazardous operation we should discuss it.” So I think there’s things that the students can do to directly promote laboratory safety and the culture of safety.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Jyllian, here’s one that maybe you can start with. “What do you think academia can learn from industry safety practices,” since you’ve covered both?

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Well, going momentarily back to the previous question, the managing editor of the ACS journal Chemical Health & Safety used to be part of one such student safety organization when she was a graduate student, so if anyone is interested in pursuing that concept, I know there are some resources out there. I don’t have them right at my fingertips right now, but if you reach out to me—I have a very Google-able name; you can find my email address or Twitter account—I can pass those on.

In terms of what academia can learn from industry, one of the challenges there is they have very different worker populations. Academia, proportionately, has a much younger workforce with much higher turnover than industry does. And if you think about, for me if I think about what I was like in my early or mid 20s, you tend to think you’re a little bit invincible. That recognition of your own mortality tends to come later.

And I think that’s a really important thing for schools to recognize. I mean, it’s not an excuse for lax safety practices. If anything, it’s an argument that you need to pay even more attention. So that’s not really learning from industry safety practice directly, but it’s understanding what some of the differences are there. Industry is pretty clear. You don’t follow safety practices, you’re out.

And I do know of cases where someone has fired a graduate student for poor safety practice. It is possible to do it. People don’t seem to want to take those steps, but maybe a little more enforcement is appropriate.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Just to add to her comments, there are several active things that are being done. So one is that when industry makes presentations, they can emphasize the safety considerations that go into an industrial approach to research and process and production. When they make presentations, that’s one of the things that they can do.

Oftentimes, there’s also contacts between industrial researchers and academic researchers and they are offering their expertise. I know I’ve had a number of interactions with some pharmaceutical companies, and they’re very interested in trying to help out academics to improve laboratory safety. And then some companies have gone above and beyond the call.

Dow Chemical has the Dow Safety Academy. The Dow Safety Academy is actually a set of resources available to promote safe research. They have direct connections between them and a number of universities, but also their website contains freely available materials, and there’s actually videos also related to safely using materials. So there’s a number of things that can be done there and are being done.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

I would think, and we sort of posit this in our paper, that if a graduate program is teaching or trying to teach to the higher standards of industry in terms of safety, in addition to probably improving safety in the labs in that academic institution, their students will be better prepared for jobs in the industry, because they won’t have to be retrained to higher standards.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Yes, I hear that over and over from industry: “We feel like we have to do remedial training for people coming out of graduate school.” And they would love to not have to do that, to the degree that they do that.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Yes, multiple benefits. What about suggestions for encouraging PIs to take a more active role in promoting safety? Craig, you identified that as a key problem. What are the steps that institutions and others should take to do that?

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Yeah, so I did mention a few minutes ago having the students help initiate. PIs really value their students a lot, and they want the students to be as productive as possible producing the science. So if the students go to the PIs and say, “We want this. We want this to be a part of group meetings.” Or, “We want this to be part of the departmental education.” I think that’s a good starting point.

I think administrators clearly need to put requirements on the PIs to promote lab safety, and when it comes to training grants, then the administrators there can demand that type of action by the PIs. And then the NIH, from their perspective, could also demand that that be part of training grant programs, asking what type of actions are being done at the PI level.

So in site visits for training grants, the reviewers could ask what the individual research PIs are doing to promote lab safety. So there is a number of actions there. And then maybe not related to training grants but individual research grants, the NIH, for example, could ask that the PIs identify what are the hazards and what are the risks in the research being proposed in this grant?

And then the second part would be what is the PI going to do to mitigate those risks? And then the third part would be what training will be done as part of this grant to promote safe research—so training on the grad students and postdoctoral scholars.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

I think, Jyllian, ACS journals are now requiring special safety sections, isn’t that right?

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

They are requiring safety information, although it varies by journal. And some of that is because there are so many journals. We have ACS Chemical Health & Safety, also Organic Process Research & Development. We also have more computational journals and more biochemical and then, of course, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, so how that gets implemented varies quite a bit across the board.

I honestly, I haven’t asked recently how people think that’s going, so I’m not sure. Better than not asking authors to do it, certainly. Not sure how it’s gone in practice.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

In my opinion, it could be strengthened quite a bit, and I’ve made comments to some people at ACS on that. But as an example, when people review papers, there’s typically some free response sections, but there’s also a few specific questions like, what’s the scientific merit of this research? Did the results adequately support the conclusions?

So a series of questions that are brief that the reviewer is supposed to answer. It would be easy for the journals to add one or two more questions for the reviewers, such as, are any particular hazards highlighted in the safety information and are measures given to mitigate any risks? It would be easy to add in a question in the review forms related to is safety addressed in this paper?

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

And as you said, same possibly for grants. So one of the attendees says that her research is actually in academic safety, which is great to hear.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Send me an email!

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Send Craig an email. He wants to hear from you.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Me too!

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

And Jyllian too. So that’s a great connection right there.

But that brings up the question of what more research would you like to see done in this area? What are some key questions that we just don’t know the answers to and would help us improve safety culture if we did?

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

I think some of the stuff that Craig has described, really trying to understand what the drivers and motivations are for… Going back to the original question: Does PI engagement make a difference? It turns out that, yes, as you’d expect, it does.

Graduate students just in general don’t pay a whole lot of attention to stuff that their advisor doesn’t care about. I think the next step from there is what sort of interventions work? Are there different approaches to training that are more or less effective? There is probably a lot of literature on this outside of laboratory safety, so could probably capitalize on some of that in terms of what training approaches work and make some generalizations with it. Laboratory scientists are data-driven people. If you can give them the data to say this makes a difference, I think they are probably that much more likely to pay attention to it.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

Definitely. And also there are other fields that have been doing safety analysis for quite a long time, and if we can translate that information over. So for example, the aviation industry has very robust procedures for safety because the consequences are so severe. There are things that are done in the aviation industry that could be emulated in the research fields. Just an example, checklists. You don’t want your pilot to have the A-310 lift off without going through the checklist of safety issues. So we could think about the same things as related to lab safety. When you’re getting ready to fire up that centrifuge, have you done A, B, C, D? There’s a number of things that can be looked at.

In engineering there’s a number of programs that actually have safety analysis as a course in engineering. So I think looking at how we can translate safety information and safety culture promotion from other areas to lab research, I think that would be one thing to look at. As Jyllian mentioned, what type of training is most effective? Do we want to call it, say, safety education, maybe not safety training?

And then the structures of universities and how they promote safety action. So human factor analysis. Many accidents occur because of human actions and not paying attention to certain things, and so research related to understanding human factors and how they contribute to lab accidents.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

I know we’re almost at the time here, but going back to having a strong safety culture. Where do people really start to become scientists? It’s in their undergraduate labs. And I think people could do a better job of building safety into the curriculum as a way to engage students and have them understand the science that they’re doing.

The safety concerns are not separable from what you’re doing scientifically. If you understand the virulence of this particular pathogen, for example, that drives your safety considerations. So rather than just handing students a list of rules for the labs they’re taking, are there ways to have them engage in that hazard assessment/risk assessment part for the teaching labs?

There’s a great example from Seattle University where they break students up into groups and each group—separate from their lab groups—each group is responsible for doing the risk assessment for the laboratory and presenting it to the class. And it’s a good literature exercise, it’s a good critical thinking exercise, and there’s lots of pedagogy in there that you’re fulfilling that becomes more useful in the long run in terms of setting that culture—this is part of what we do in the laboratory—than handing people a set of rules.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

We’re just about out of time. I’ll give one more question before we wrap up. I’ll say there are lots of questions still in the Q&A. We’re going to save these, and we’ll figure out if there is some way we can answer those in the future in different ways. We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg here, I think. But the last question that came through that I’ll ask you is, “What more can government agencies—NIH, NSF, elsewhere—be doing, or state agencies?” Oh, nothing. Good. [LAUGHING]

Dr. Craig Merlic:

So I did make some comments about grant applications. Can we ask the people proposing the research to identify what are the hazards? How are they going to mitigate the hazards? And how are they going to train the researchers? At government level or institutional levels, making demands on institutions that they have robust safety programs and engagement at every level.

We need to make sure that the leaders of institutions value safety and promote safety. That was one of the other chat questions. And there’s nothing more destructive to scientific progress than to have an accident and having to spend enormous amounts of resources addressing it. So safety is always much more efficient than having an accident and then trying to clean up the mess afterwards.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:


Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Nothing really to add on that front except to note that going back to the enormous amount of resources involved. Time and materials aside, UCLA spent, if I remember correctly, somewhere on the order of $4.5 million on external legal fees only around Sheri Sangji’s death. And that doesn’t include anyone’s internal time or anything like that, or even Sheri’s medical bills. So yeah, better not to have the accident in the first place.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. Again, I think we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg, but this is a great start of this conversation. I hope we’ll be able to find ways to continue it. This is a real area of emphasis for NIGMS and, I think, NIH as a whole, and, again, we’ll put this up on the web. I encourage you to share it. And we will find ways to answer the rest of the questions.

So Jyllian, Craig, thanks so much to both of you.

Dr. Craig Merlic:

And thank you, Jon.

Dr. Jyllian Kemsley:

Thank you very much for having us.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Thank you.