Science Careers Blog

October 20, 2011

New Chemical Safety Board Report Could Be the Lab-Safety Turning Point

In February 2010, we reported that the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) was undertaking its first-ever look at the safety situation in academic labs after one explosion critically injured and maimed a graduate student at Texas Tech University (TTU) and another, not long before, killed a technician at the University of California-Los Angeles.  The following May, the lead investigator on that study, Cheryl McKenzie, told us that the TTU incident appeared to reveal "widely applicable" safety issues "that need to be explored."

On Wednesday, the CSB proved itself as good as its word by issuing an incisive, detailed, and wide-ranging report entitled Texas Tech University Laboratory Explosion.  This groundbreaking document lays out what went wrong at TTU; what it means for that institution -- and, by extension, for thousands of other institutions across the nation; and what needs to be done about the situation right away. 

Every leader of every academic institution, department, and lab with students, technicians or postdocs working there needs to study this report closely and immediately; take its findings, conclusions, and recommendations to heart; and turn them into action without delay.  Leaders at every granting institution -- who, CSB writes, can play a "critical role" improving safety -- need to do likewise, forthwith.  In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Chemical Society should swiftly follow the specific recommendations the report has for them.  

Were these things to happen, egregious and preventable lapses like those that in less than 3 years have taken the lives of Sheri Sangji and Michele Dufault and almost taken that of Preston Brown might occur a great deal less often -- or even not at all.  Beyond these steps, CSB's call for "a larger, more comprehensive study on academic laboratory safety" needs to be carried out as soon as possible to find out what the situation truly is nationwide.

We'll be following up on up on the report and its effects in the coming months.  At this point, it's literally vital to note that CSB found "systematic deficiencies within Texas Tech that contributed to the incident." These include a lack of "safety and management accountability and oversight" and the failure to learn "preventative lessons" that "were not documented, tracked, and formally communicated."  Most importantly, "the lessons learned from the incident provide all academic institutions with an important opportunity to compare their own policies and practices to [those that] existed at Texas Tech leading up to the incident."  Beyond that, the incident was a "missed opportunity for a granting agency to improve safety practices."

Hundreds of thousands of young people, from novice undergraduates through postdocs, are currently at daily risk in tens of thousands of shoddily managed labs.  But, as the CSB points out, the nation also lacks any systematic way of tracking academic safety incidents -- and issues and needs to have one soon.

Under a cloak of bureaucratic and scientific even-handedness, CSB has issued a clarion call to immediate lifesaving action.  Though many government reports end up in dusty obscurity, this one needs and deserves to be on the desk, mind, and conscience of every academic and granting official, and faculty member with influence over the conditions affecting the vulnerable young people entrusted to our university and college science departments.  And the CSB needs to make academic lab safety a focus of its influential attention.  Here's hoping that, with the important report it has just issued, the terrible tide of avoidable death and injury in our nation's academic labs may finally be beginning to turn.

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