Preliminary report to Faculty Senate on Stanford's lab safety culture seen as 'start' of a conversation

The Task Force for Advancing the Culture of Laboratory Safety at Stanford University made its first presentation to the Faculty Senate yesterday. At the meeting, the senate also approved a proposal to extend the School of Medicine's principal investigator experiment.

In campus research laboratories, principal investigators (PIs) are the single most important element for sustaining lab safety culture, and they need help accomplishing that goal, a co-chair of a Stanford task force told the Faculty Senate on Thursday.

Speaking at the May 1 senate meeting, Robert Waymouth, a co-chair of the Task Force for Advancing the Culture of Laboratory Safety at Stanford University, said he – like all PIs – is very busy.

Kate ChesleyRobert Waymouth

Robert Waymouth, a co-chair of the Task Force for Advancing the Culture of Laboratory Safety at Stanford University, speaking to the Faculty Senate on Thursday

"We need help," said Waymouth, who runs the Waymouth Group in the Department of Chemistry. "I need help. I don't think I prioritize this as much as I should. I've got many other things on my plate. And I need assistance in trying to think about this and be creative about it every time I go about advising my group."

It was the task force's first presentation to the senate on its activities, findings and preliminary recommendations since the group convened in October 2013.

The 13-member task force was asked to review and evaluate the state and perception of the safety culture in research laboratories at Stanford, and to recommend ways to promote and advance a robust and positive safety culture among researchers.

The task force held eight town hall meetings to solicit thoughtful and scholarly input from the Stanford community on the current state of the safety culture in research labs and how it might be improved. The task force also created a Community Input Questionnaire and conducted the Stanford Laboratory Safety Culture Survey in February and March.

At Stanford, 3,500 students, researchers and postdoctoral scholars work in 700 campus research labs.

Waymouth, the Robert Eckles Swain Professor in Chemistry, was joined by co-chairs Bruce Clemens, the Walter B. Reinhold Professor in the School of Engineering and professor of photon science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and P.J. Utz, professor of medicine.

Among the other preliminary recommendations of the task force:

  • Every research group needs to designate a lab safety coordinator – preferably a senior and experienced researcher. The PI must provide a clear statement of the role, responsibility and authority of the lab safety coordinator to all lab personnel.
  • PIs need to facilitate and provide regular opportunity for open communication and dialogue regarding safety with and among lab researchers. Safety communications ought to be a regular part of laboratory group meetings.
  • Stanford leadership, at every level, must promote a strong, positive research laboratory safety culture as a core element in the responsible conduct of research.
  • The design of buildings and research laboratories must be reviewed and updated to better accommodate new and emerging best practices for the safety of personnel within research spaces.
  • Stanford should provide centralized funding for lab safety equipment and requirements in individual labs.

Waymouth described the preliminary report as "the start of a conversation" within the Stanford community. To succeed, it will require a collective effort, he said.

"This needs continual effort and creative thinking," he said, adding that the task force would like input from everyone.

The rest of the preliminary report can be found on the Faculty Senate website.

The task force expects to complete its report in mid-summer.

New senate leadership

Senate Chair David Palumbo-Liu announced that Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, professor of German and of comparative literature and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, had been elected chair of the 47th Faculty Senate, which will convene in the fall.

Palumbo-Liu also announced that Al Camarillo, the Leon Sloss Jr. Memorial Professor and professor of history, had been elected vice chair. Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature.

Career Development Awards

On a divided voice vote, the senate approved a proposal to continue on a trial basis for another four years the School of Medicine's practice of allowing clinical fellows and postdoctoral fellows holding MD or MD/PhD degrees to submit one proposal for a traditional, investigator-initiated research award, and to add exceptional postdoctoral scholars with PhD degrees to the list of people who are eligible to apply.

The full minutes of the May 1 meeting will be available on the Faculty Senate website next week. The minutes will include the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations. The next senate meeting will be held May 15.