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Survey Exposes Lab Safety Gaps

Researchers reveal troubling practices and perceptions in laboratories

by Jyllian Kemsley
January 21, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 3

Despite high-profile laboratory accidents in the past several years, including one that was fatal, a laboratory safety survey conducted last summer indicates that significant numbers of research labs continue unsafe practices: Researchers work alone, avoid wearing personal protective equipment, and do not receive training on the specific hazards of their work. And while 86% of respondents said that they felt their lab was a safe place to work, 45% thought that overall safety in their lab could be improved.

Researchers from a wide range of fields completed the survey, which was conducted by a coalition of academic and commercial organizations.

“While it is perhaps not a statistically rigorous survey, I think it provides a lot of information about what some of the key issues are as perceived by the research community,” says Dorothy Zolandz, director of the National Research Council’s Board on Chemical Sciences & Technology (BCST). BCST publishes “Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposal of Chemicals” and was not involved in the survey but has another lab safety study in the works.

“People perceive themselves to be safer than they really are,” Zolandz adds, pointing to the fact that while survey respondents generally reported that they felt safe in their work environments, nearly half reported being injured at least once in a laboratory setting. Most of the injuries were needlesticks, thermal burns, chemical burns, or minor cuts or bites that required no stitches.

Also, while 93% of respondents reported “always” or “usually” wearing the gloves that they said they should use in their lab work, only 74% said they wore a lab coat and 62% said they wore eye protection. People do experiments while working alone at least once a week in 79% of respondents’ labs, and 11% of respondents said they do no risk assessment before conducting an experiment.

Regarding safety training, 83% of researchers thought they received sufficient training both to comply with rules and regulations and to minimize the risk of injury to themselves or others. Yet 42% thought that safety training in their organization was focused on compliance requirements rather than on improving lab safety.

The survey was designed jointly by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, Nature Publishing Group (NPG), and BioRaft, which develops lab management software for safety and compliance. BioRaft investor Digital Science is a division of Macmillan Publishers, as is NPG. The survey was available online from June 13 to July 30, 2012, and was advertised through e-mail and social media, including posts on C&EN’s Safety Zone blog.

Overall, 2,375 laboratory researchers completed the survey. Most of them worked in the U.S. and U.K. A majority, 59%, said their subject area was in biochemistry, biology, medicine, or neuroscience, while 17% said they did chemistry and another 5% said they were in the pharmaceutical or biotech industry. The remaining respondents represent a range of other scientific disciplines. Three-quarters of respondents hailed from labs in a college, university, medical school, or privately funded research institute; 11% worked in government labs; and 8% worked in industry.

Although the survey sponsors released the survey answer statistics and some additional analysis by NPG, they did not release the raw data for closer analysis, such as to allow breakout of chemistry-specific responses. The results and NPG analysis are available at

The NPG analysis highlighted some differences between “managers”—survey respondents who selected their job title as principal investigator, professor, senior researcher, research director, department chair, vice chancellor or president, or similar position—and more junior lab workers in their perceptions of lab safety. In particular, while 94% of managers believed that appropriate safety measures had been taken to protect employees from injury in their labs, only 79% of students and postdoctoral researchers said the same. Only 37% of all survey respondents said that their supervisor or principal investigator regularly checks to ensure that they are “performing laboratory duties in a safe fashion using proper safety equipment.”

The UC Center for Laboratory Safety plans additional analysis of the data, says James H. Gibson, executive director of the center and director of the UC Los Angeles Office of Environment, Health & Safety. The mission of the center, which was established in 2011 after the death of a UCLA researcher from injuries sustained in a lab fire, is to support research in laboratory safety and translate that research into best practices. “We are particularly interested in some of the preliminary findings of perceived risks compared with actual work practices,” Gibson says about the survey results. He and colleagues also plan to compare results between subject areas, types of institutions, and geographic location.

The survey results reported so far are a bit “slippery” and hard to parse in some cases, cautions Ralph Stuart, a chemical hygiene officer at Cornell University and secretary of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety. ACS publishes C&EN.

Regarding the question of working alone, for example, “alone” isn’t defined—someone could be alone in a building or alone in a room but still within earshot of another person, and those two situations may present different levels of safety concern, Stuart notes.

He says the disjunction between people feeling safe but still seeing ways to improve safety is something that is seen in other surveys of different industries or occupational groups. “Even when we don’t feel too worried about ourselves, we see ways of improving things,” Stuart says. He adds that the responses regarding personal safety were roughly the same as those observed at Stuart’s previous employer, the University of Vermont, as part of a Campus Safety, Health & Environmental Management Association survey.

Stuart also previously spearheaded a Division of Chemical Health & Safety survey of academic laboratory safety, but that survey asked academic chemistry departments about administrative concerns, such as chemical hygiene plans and training practices rather than individual researchers’ practices and perceptions (C&EN, June 21, 2010, page 33).

BCST is also embarking on a study of laboratory safety culture, with the goal “to provide practical guidance for how one can move an organization toward an improved safety culture,” Zolandz says. She notes that every organization already has a safety culture, but the existing one may not be one that actually keeps people safe.

The project will bring together chemistry department faculty; university administrators; environment, health, and safety professionals; and behavioral scientists. “There are areas where safety culture has been studied in depth for a very long time,” such as in aviation, nuclear energy, and mining, says Doug Friedman, the board program officer who is managing the project. He and Zolandz hope that the committee will be able to use that data to guide improvements in research lab safety.

Friedman is working on staffing the committee now, with the aim to hold the first meeting this spring in Washington, D.C. Other meetings will be held elsewhere, at locations to be determined but with the goal of hearing from people in different geographic locations and at different levels of the research hierarchy about their views on lab safety practices. “We want it to be as inclusive as our abilities and resources allow,” Friedman says. He hopes that the project will be completed and the corresponding report issued during the first half of 2014.


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