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Science Careers Blog

January 4, 2013

Survey Finds Researchers Dangerously Complacent About Lab Safety

Academic researchers generally consider their labs safe, even though the great majority of labs routinely violate basic principles of safe practice and many fail to provide adequate training and emphasis on safety.  This dismaying--though not surprising--conclusion emerged in a preliminary analysis of data from an international survey conducted through a collaboration of Nature, the safety company BioRaft (which has a financial relationship with Digital Science, a sister company of NPG), and the University of California (UC) Center for Laboratory Safety.  Results from what is apparently the first large-scale survey of lab safety practices were announced on 2 January. They were not encouraging.

More than 2600 researchers, primarily from the United States and the United Kingdom but also from Continental Europe, China, Japan, and elsewhere, responded to the online survey during June and July, 2012. The survey, which was not randomized, begins to lift "the veil [that] has obscured our view, preventing us from making informed assessments and thereby data-driven improvements to lab safety," BioRaft CEO Nathan Watson writes at a BioRaft  company blog.

The UC lab safety center will be issuing more detailed analyses later on.  For now, some revealing findings:
  • 95% of those responding claim to give high importance to safety, and 86% say they believe they work in safe labs. 
  • More than half of respondents reveal, that they or their colleagues routinely ignore basic safety principles.  64%, for example, report researchers working alone in their labs at least several times a week and 93% say that solo work occurs at least some of the time. 54% of respondents admit that they themselves sometimes work without lab coats. 
  • More than 90% of upper-rank researchers rated their lab's safety arrangements as good, but only 41% of lower-rank lab members concurred.
  • Almost a third of those responding know of an injury in their lab that led to medical attention.
  • 40% of the junior lab members say that their safety performance does not receive regular review.
  • 28% of those in labs considered "high risk" reported being permitted to do experiments before getting safety training.
Clearly, many researchers have an unrealistically rosy view of their lab's safety practices. Especially disturbing is the fact that a significant number of them appear to be the people responsible for running the labs. We eagerly await the more complete analysis of these findings, and even more eagerly the needed "data-driven improvements" that these results reveal.  You can find the report here.

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