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Science Careers Blog

February 6, 2012

After Explosion, Texas Tech Committee Aims to Make Safety "Automatic"

In its October 2011 report on the 2010 lab explosion at Texas Tech University (TTU) that maimed a graduate student, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board leveled blistering criticisms against the the university's lab-safety culture.  According to pair of front-page articles on 5 January in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, the experience has led TTU  and some other Texas universities to make changes in how they think about and deal with safety. 

Before the explosion, the four or five faculty members on the TTU chemistry department's safety committee met "infrequently," the Avalance-Journal reports. Now, a departmental safety committee consisting of 5 faculty members, 4 graduate students, 3 members of the university's environmental health and safety department, and 2 each of postdocs and undergraduate students meets every other week.  The group also sends out regular safety notices and fields 3-person teams composed of a faculty member, a grad student and a staff member to carry out unannounced safety inspections.

In 2010, TTU initiated a 16-member, university-wide safety committee chaired by Professor Dmitri Pappas of the chemistry and biochemistry department. "Safe research is as important as ethical research. These go hand in hand," Pappas says, according to the Avalanche-Journal. "You can't be productive if you're not doing [research] properly.  Properly means safe and ethically.  Our job is to assist faculty in keeping students safe, keeping themselves safe and the university safe."  The committee's tasks reportedly include assessing safety protocols and assisting outside investigators in case of safety incidents.

Students report that faculty members are now careful to distribute safety apparel and require its use, the article states. Pappas also notes that the university is developing incentives for good safety practice and moving to make safety a factor in tenure and promotion decisions.  "Everyone will realize, just like everything we do that's required of us, [safety awareness is] just something that just gets done automatically," he says, as quoted by the Avalance-Journal.  "Once safety becomes an automatic part of your job and your thinking, then we've actually transformed the safety culture."

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