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University leaders should be responsible for lab safety, report says

APLU issues this and other recommendations to help colleges improve safety culture on campus

by Andrea Widener
April 11, 2016

Credit: APLU
The APLU report on laboratory safety.
Report cover reading “A guide to implementing a safety culture in our universities."
Credit: APLU
The APLU report on laboratory safety.

Presidents and chancellors of U.S. universities must take personal responsibility for changing the lab safety culture in academia, a new report says.

The document, published by the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU), challenges top university officials to create high-level committees responsible for lab safety, to modify tenure and promotion requirements to include safety, and to promote open communication about accidents and near-misses on campuses. Although the report contains other recommendations, the ones putting emphasis on university officials’ accountability are being viewed as most important by the report’s authors and other safety experts.

Today, APLU and the Association of American Universities will send letters to leaders of more than 260 top U.S. universities calling on them to change the safety culture at their universities.

“The time to do this is now,” says report cochair Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee. “We took it upon ourselves to really step up and say to the academic community that we need to own this.”

In industry, safety is commonly discussed by leadership. “The reason that safety awareness is not part of the academic campus is that no one has been explicitly held responsible,” says chemical safety expert Neal Langerman, founder of the company Advanced Chemical Safety.

“This report does a better job of making it clear that the faculty are responsible for the safety of the work they supervise and that the chief honcho of the campus is ultimately responsible,” he says.

Most of the report’s 20 recommendations have been made before, by commissions organized by the National Academy of Sciences, the Chemical Safety Board, and the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.

What makes the APLU guide new is that “there was never really a process that was put together to collect, map, and reference all of the things that are needed to change a culture of safety,” Eighmy says. “We are helping everybody raise the bar.” Each recommendation includes citations to previous reports, news articles about accidents, and a list of best practices.

Langerman is especially happy to see the suggestion that safety become an integral part of tenure and promotion decisions. Even if nothing else came out of this report, he says, “adopting that would change the ballgame completely.”

The report, however, does not include any plan by APLU to check in with universities about whether they’ve followed the recommendations. Langerman says a public examination of lab safety practices would provide the “teeth” needed to ensure that universities start the process.

Convincing presidents and chancellors that labs safety should be a top priority won’t be difficult, Eighmy explains. Most are aware of the serious, sometimes deadly, accidents that have occurred on some campuses, as well as their legal and financial consequences. For example, the 2008 accident at the University of California, Los Angeles, that killed lab assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji resulted in criminal charges against UC and professor Patrick Harran.

“There is widespread recognition from our presidents and chancellors that it is better to be proactive than reactive,” Eighmy says. “We expect this to be widely embraced.”


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