Although attitudes towards lab safety have grown more positive over the years, some academic researchers still believe that safe lab practices hamper research productivity.
The idea is that time spent on safety training or documentation is time that could have been better used running experiments or analyzing data. Challenging this impression has been difficult, as there’s little data available to suggest otherwise.
But now, a working paper published in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research makes it clear: lab safety may change how researchers do science, but it doesn’t affect how much they’ll publish in a given year (2023, DOI: 10.3386/w31313).
“Doing safe work does not lead to doing less work or less impactful work,” says John Trant, a chemist at the University of Windsor who wasn’t involved in the research. “This study provides evidence that this is a false dichotomy.”
To measure the effect of lab safety on research productivity, the authors of the paper analyzed the publication records of 592 academic chemistry laboratories affiliated with the University of California (UC). Their goal was to determine whether the labs experienced a noticeable drop in publications after 2008, the year that Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji died in a lab fire at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Sangji’s death led to a revamp of lab safety policies across UC campuses. There was pushback. Imke Schroeder, a research project manager at the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, remembers that some scientists were concerned that the new rules would impede their ability to conduct research effectively because they feared “the amount of paperwork that had to be done was staggering.”
But according to study coauthor Alberto Galasso, an economist at the University of Toronto, stricter lab safety policies had little effect on the publication records of the UC labs analyzed in the study. The rule changes did appear to impact which substances researchers used, as some shied away from more flammable chemicals.
Galasso says he hopes that the results of this study, which was recently accepted for publication in Research Policy, will help persuade researchers that lab safety doesn’t have to come at the expense of their science. “This historical case suggests that there is scope for adaptation,” he says. Even if new safety protocols require a lot of effort at first, it’s possible to “go back to the level of productivity that you had before.”