New task force seeks input on the lab safety culture at Stanford

Stanford has convened a task force to review and evaluate the state and perception of the safety culture in campus research laboratories, and to recommend ways to promote and advance a robust and positive safety culture among researchers.

Tim Griffith / Courtesy Stanford News Service stanford lab

Researchers work in a laboratory in the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (Y2E2).

When researchers enter his lab, Stanford chemistry Professor Robert Waymouth would like them to consider three questions before getting down to work: What is the most hazardous activity I'll be doing today? What could possibly go wrong? If something does go wrong, how am I going to respond?

It's a frame of mind that Waymouth, a co-chair of the new Task Force for Advancing the Culture of Laboratory Safety at Stanford University, hopes will become "ingrained in the DNA" of everyone who works in a campus lab, so that safety habits would become second nature to researchers – like fastening their seatbelts in cars.

The 12-member task force, which held its first meeting in October, includes representatives from a broad spectrum of the university's laboratory academic leadership and the laboratory research community. Its membership includes faculty, health and safety staff, a life sciences research assistant, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford Medical School and a graduate student in the Chemistry Department.

Stanford convened the task force to review and evaluate the state and perception of the safety culture in campus research laboratories and to recommend ways to promote and advance a robust and positive safety culture among researchers.

"We have not convened this task force in response to some crisis in lab safety at Stanford – there is no crisis," Waymouth said. "We just think it's time to be thoughtful, creative and scholarly about lab safety."

Waymouth said there is a broad consensus in the United States – within professional societies, government agencies and industrial companies that hire college graduates to work in their labs – that all universities should be paying closer attention to lab safety practices and habits.

"Now is a good time to reexamine our current safety practices, come up with best practices and be the leader in safety throughout the academic world in the United States," said PJ Utz, a professor of medicine and a co-chair of the task force.

Provide input in person and online

The task force has scheduled two town hall meetings – on Wednesday, Nov. 20, and Wednesday, Dec. 4 – for laboratory bench researchers, including postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, research associates and research assistants. Each meeting will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Clark Center Auditorium.

They are the first of at least four town hall meetings the task force will convene on campus. Subsequent meetings will be organized for other members of the research community.

"We need to hear from you – the people doing the work in the labs," said task force member Persis Drell, a professor of physics and of particle physics and astrophysics, and former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC).

"You are the only ones that can tell us what the 'culture of lab safety' really is – what works and what doesn't work – and what we can do to make it better," she said. "Please tell us about the minor injuries or near misses that you have seen. While they may seem minor, they are often some of the most helpful signs that something is wrong."

The task force has included a feedback form on its website. Responses may be submitted anonymously and will be held in the strictest confidence. On the form, names, departments and email addresses are optional, but the task force would like to know to which lab stakeholder group the respondent belongs. Those groups are: faculty/principal investigator; bench researcher (postdoctoral scholar, undergraduate, research assistant/associate; environmental health and safety/school/department safety representative.

The task force is particularly interested in responses that address four questions:

  • What is the current state of safety habits and practices in your work or study environment?
  • How safely do you believe you and/or others around you carry out your/their daily research activities?
  • What practices or habits could be improved to enhance safety in everyday lab research activities?
  • Institutionally, how could Stanford respond to modify its policies, procedures or support to enhance safety?

Jessica Vargas, a chemistry graduate student and task force member, said the task force was not established to impose new safety regulations in labs, but to begin an honest dialogue with everyone from undergraduates to principal investigators.

"If we don't speak to everyone along the chain, we won't be able to capture what the safety culture actually looks like at Stanford," said Vargas, the in-house safety coordinator for The Wender Group. "Feedback is not only encouraged, but critical to the success and findings of the task force."

Crucial characteristics

As part of its work, the task force will assess how Stanford's research labs align with the seven key characteristics of a strong organizational safety culture, which were identified by the American Chemical Society in its 2012 report, Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.

The ACA said those elements are: strong leadership and management for safety; continuous learning about safety; strong safety attitudes, awareness and ethics; learning from incidents; collaborative efforts to build safety culture; promoting and communicating safety; and institutional support for safety.

The task force, which will prepare a report, will identify the best practices of a sound, proactive laboratory safety culture within research labs, within management systems in departments and schools, and within the programs and support functions of the university's Department of Environmental Health & Safety.

In addition to Waymouth and Utz, the task force is co-chaired by Bruce Clemens, a professor of materials science and engineering and a professor of photon science at SLAC. Clemens also is the chair of the University Committee on Health and Safety at Stanford.

The other members of the task force are:

  • Anthony Appleton, recent postdoctoral fellow in chemical engineering at Stanford, currently adjunct faculty member at Ohlone College
  • Mary Dougherty, Environmental Health & Safety industrial hygienist and university chemical hygiene officer
  • Curtis Frank, senior associate dean for faculty and academics, School of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering
  • Larry Gibbs, associate vice provost for Environmental Health & Safety
  • Linda Heneghan, facilities manager, Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine
  • Loan Nguyen, life sciences research assistant, Department of Biology
  • David Silberman, director, Health and Safety Programs Office, School of Medicine, and university safety partner representative
  • Nicholas van Buuren, postdoctoral research fellow, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, School of Medicine