Presented by Jessica Martin, University of Connecticut
02/03 Table Read for The Art & State of Safety Journal Club: excerpts from Starting and Sustaining a Laboratory Safety Team (LST)
The full paper can be found at: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.chas.0c00016
“In recent years, graduate and postdoctoral researchers began leading safety groups called laboratory safety teams (LSTs), which have begun spreading as an increasingly popular grassroots movement. LSTs have the potential to enhance communication among researchers at all levels, enrich the professional development of newer researchers, and improve the culture of safety across academic institutions[d]. The modern researcher-led LST was first defined by the efforts at the University of Minnesota (UMN). In 2012, UMN already had a system in place that required each laboratory to have a designated Laboratory Safety Officer (LSO) who was a graduate or postdoctoral researcher.[e][f][g] [h][i][j][k][l][m][n][o][p][q]From this pool, leadership from the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS) and Chemistry departments recruited seven volunteers to begin assessing safety practices and attitudes in conjunction with mentors at Dow Chemical, thereby establishing what they called the Joint Safety Team (JST). It is important to emphasize in this structure that the LST was not looking to step into a responsible training function such as that of a faculty member, nor was it looking to take responsibility for EH&S compliance functions. The LST was meant to function in addition to and in collaboration with both of these pre-existing structures. The stated purpose of the LST was to address “the need for an improved culture of safety in research-intensive science departments … which involves enabling leadership by graduate student and postdoctoral associate laboratory safety officers.” Since this time, LSTs have launched across the United States with differing structures and objectives depending on the institution’s organization, needs, and resources.”
Working Definition of Safety Culture
“In an exhaustive analysis of the literature on safety culture in industrial, applied, and occupational psychology, Megan E. Gonzalez defined safety culture for academic research laboratories as “the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, social and technical practices, policies, and perceptions of individuals in an organization that influence the opportunity for accidents to occur.” She goes on to say that a “healthy safety culture will be one that minimizes the opportunity for accidents and near-misses and are characterized by open communication[r][s][t][u], a system designed to continually improve upon the culture of safety, and provides for the confidence in the efficacy of training and preventative measures.” It should be noted that all three of these parameters are related to reciprocal communication throughout the hierarchy of an institution. While LSTs are not designed to solve every challenge related to safety culture (nor should they be), they have the potential to make a valuable contribution by enhancing communication pathways to enable this reciprocal communication within and across the institution.”
ESTABLISHING YOUR LST
In order to start an LST, five common components have been identified:
- Identify a Champion[v][w][x][y]
- Connect to the Network
- Locate Resources
- Establish a Project Management Structure
- First Project: high profile and low resource
Identify a Champion
“So far, each LST had some sort of champion at the outset. The champion needs to be someone who will be with the institution for the long-term. This person also needs to show a level of commitment to the survival of the LST that will inspire that person to look for ways to make the LST longer lasting. Finally, this person needs to be in a position to know of ways to make the LST permanent, beyond the scope and view of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.”
“It was also notable throughout these interviews the warmth with which students discussed engaged faculty and EH&S staff. Many of the heavily involved students have used these teams as vehicles to forge relationships outside of their own research laboratories. Those individuals who are both intimately knowledgeable about the potential safety issues faced in laboratories and physically present in an accessible space to researchers would naturally make the most sensible champions. To that end, those schools that have made strides to develop the role of their safety personnel beyond compliance enforcement appear to be enjoying a synergistic effect between LSTs and EH&S personnel.[z][aa][ab][ac][ad][ae][af][ag][ah][ai]”
“The majority of teams have partnered with EH&S staff and identified them as a source of a champion. Some teams were originally launched with primary support coming from EH&S staff members. The relationship between student researchers involved in these teams and EH&S personnel speaks to the robustness of the culture of safety that exists in the department. On the other hand, a small number of LSTs avoid EH&S altogether. There are views expressed that EH&S personnel are primarily focused on legal compliance and function as “the police” [aj][ak][al][am]within the university; other schools have teams that are actively trying to change this perception.”
“Alongside the growth of the LST movement has been a parallel movement to find ways to transition the roles of safety professionals from being merely the “compliance police” to more of a partnership role with departments[an][ao][ap][aq][ar] in supporting better (and safer) research. These strategies have manifested in many ways including changes to how EH&S personnel do business, the establishment of Research Safety offices, and the use of embedded safety professionals within research departments. Anecdotally, the success of these campaigns is highly variable in research universities throughout the US, leading to a multitude of approaches to safety. There is also very little in the published literature regarding the institutions’ experiences with these new approaches although the need for understanding the impact of these changes is great. Elevating the role of EH&S as a critical component of good research has been cited both by Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil as a key component to the programs that they have launched with universities (discussed further below).”
Connect to the Network
“In his interview for this paper, Tim Alford of ExxonMobil stated, “Safety is not proprietary.” It was expressed by student researchers from several of the teams that within the safety space, instead of competing with each other, all of the teams were working to help each other. These sentiments speak volumes to the importance of the collaborative network that has developed among all of the participants in this movement (Figure 2). This network is maintained via social media, websites, email lists, ACS workshops and resources, company mentorship, and team members directly communicating with one another[as].”
“One way to secure resources that was found to be successful by many groups is incorporating LST ideas into pre-existing programs. Many members of LSTs have strengthened their networking skills by identifying and pursuing projects in which an LST activity would be an add-on to an already occurring event or assist in the restructuring of an event. As an example of an add-on, some LSTs have successfully introduced “Safety Moments” (also known as Safety Minutes) to the beginning of seminar lectures or classes required for first year graduate students.[ba][bb][bc][bd][be][bf] As an example of a restructure, many LSTs have become more involved in the safety training given by their institutions, with an emphasis on making training more interactive, relevant for the individual, and accessible. Finally, some LSTs have worked closely with EH&S or department safety committees to provide feedback from researchers on safety concerns in the department.”
Establish a Project Management Structure
“How the LST interacts with pre-existing actors also varies widely. There are some cases in which a faculty or staff member takes a direct management role[bg][bh][bi][bj], although this is rare. Much more commonly found is a structure in which a faculty or staff member plays an advisory or supporting role, either suggesting possible projects and collaborations or giving feedback on LST member ideas[bk][bl][bm]. In some cases, either LSTs have worked collaboratively with department safety committees, or a member of the LST has served as a representative on the department safety committee. Finally, several teams have at least one member of EH&S staff keeping current with LST activities and looking for ways to collaborate on projects of joint interest.”
First Project: High Profile, Low Resource
“Communication projects are often focused on written communication methods (newsletters, flyers, and posters) as many described these as the easiest to design and distribute, either in physical spaces in the building (bathroom stalls, elevators, display boards) or online (social media, websites, listservs). Near-miss reporting projects include another layer of complexity as the project is requesting that department members provide the content by sharing their near-miss stories, which often requires anonymity in reporting and trust building with the LST. Safety Moments have taken the form of written communication distributed by electronic means but have also been delivered in person to captive audiences (seminars, classes, group meetings). Roundtable Safety Q&As are a creative upgrade to this idea that invites an interested audience to take in a Safety Moment and add to it by sharing stories, experiences, and guidance with peers.”
“As groups start planning events, lab safety can quickly become a rather serious topic, and LSTs have reported feeling overwhelmed by the safety “horror stories” from their colleagues. This has left many with a feeling of great responsibility that comes with trying to change a department’s safety culture. Successful groups stressed the importance of quickly organizing and prioritizing project goals in order to take advantage of the initial rush of excitement rather than being paralyzed by the enormity of the issues at hand.”
THE BROADER CASE FOR AN LST
“As laid out in the Introduction, LSTs can play an important role in enabling the reciprocal communication necessary to improve a department’s culture of safety. However, given all of
the demands of a graduate-level program and the “short-timer” status of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars within these universities, why would they expand their responsibilities and lead on initiatives that likely will not make a noticeable difference until they have long since moved on? The answer lies within the critical element of professional development of researchers. On one hand, an institution’s educational mission aims at preparing early career researchers for their professional career with an implied expectation for leadership in safety [bn][bo][bp][bq][br]involving hazard assessment and planning of experiments and processes. On the other hand, early career researchers contribute to the research mission of the institution by conducting innovative and groundbreaking research that requires a deliberate approach to safety considerations.”
“Another aspect to documentation and reporting that LSTs need to consider is how best to support their champions, in particular when those champions are faculty members. Faculty members are typically evaluated by their departments based on three components: research, teaching, and service. While it is typically understood that service is weighted the least of the[bs][bt][bu][bv] three in evaluations, it is still a component that needs to be strategically considered by any faculty member that may be approached as a champion. Care needs to be taken to ensure that a champion supporting the efforts of an LST not become invisible work.[bw] Documentation and reporting of activities done and the results of a regular evaluation survey can be utilized for others in the institution to make the argument to heads of departments, tenure committees, and administrative management that the service work being done by a faculty member through support of an LST is of great value and should be considered in evaluations.”
“Safety training[bx] does not work if it does not influence perceptions and attitudes about how researchers approach their jobs[by][bz][ca][cb]. Offering a multitude of resources makes no difference when researchers are not regularly encouraged to engage them as a standard part of their work. [cc][cd][ce][cf][cg]Peer-to-peer correction does not happen without the continual support of superiors. Empowering researchers to take on these challenges as leaders within LSTs strengthens the institution today and improves the workforce of tomorrow.”[ch][ci][cj]
[a]Because our research is so broad we decided to create Local Research Safety Teams, so that we could include as much of the CSU research community as possible. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE INSPIRATION!!!
[b]Do your Local Research Safety Teams include individuals in academia and industry throught the immediate community? What is the range? Very cool BTW 🙂
[c]We are exclusively CSU-only at this point. We will probably expand into industry this year.
[d]I think that it is important to note that this is a 21st Century phenomenon. When I was a full time lab employee In the 1980’s at two different institutions, I was involved in faculty / staff based safety committees that served many of the goals cited in this paper.
In this setting, the power differential between faculty and staff is less significant than with grad students and more frank and productive discussion were often had than within lab groups on similar issues,
In addition, staff were able to establish long term relationship with facility and science support offices that were often leveraged to address concerns that arose.
On the other hand, lab techs at both institutions were involved in (semi-successful) union organizing efforts due to workplace concerns. The efforts uncovered a variety of lab-specific employment practices that went against both institutional policy and applicable employment law.
Since that time, both institutions have significantly expanded their research efforts, primarily by hiring additional faculty charged with recruiting short term researchers (grad students and post-docs).
[e]Wish this was more ubiquitous expectation. In my experience highly variable between institutions and departments/disciplines.
[f]Agreed. Often, even places that do have LSO-type positions don’t have clear information/resources about what the role means or what types of responsibilities it entails!
[g]Agreed – we are working to address this based on great examples from other institutions though
[h]We have “safety captains”. This was suggested to us in 2011 by Rick Danheiser at MIT. I agree with Chris and Sarah that I wish this were more of the norm
[i]Do you have a department-wide document that explains their roles, responsibilities, etc? We have LSOs at UConn, but nobody in the department seems to have any idea what they are or what they are supposed to do. Graduate students who have taken the role seriously have found it extremely frustrating as they express that they have very little support in their roles within their own labs.
[j]Jessica’s experience seems similar to UNC. Labs are required to have designated LSOs but they are not always up-to-date, and there isn’t any training on what their official role should be. Often times it comes down to the expectations of the faculty members who selected the LSOs and that is mostly where any support would come from.
[k]Is the role and responsibility of each captain divided up per lab or other?
[l]For those of you who already have this role established, who determines who fills this role? The PI? EHS? Also, is it one LSO per lab? Per department? Looking at options.
[m]At UChicago, the PI determines who fills the role (and the PI themselves can fill the role if they wish). There is no standard on how these roles work, though, or who fills them / appoints them
[n]In our department, each lab has an LSO designated by the PI.
[o]At UNC the LSO is assigned by the PI and this is tracked by EHS. There is officially one per lab, but a number of labs that operate in multiple spaces have one per space (though only one is officially recognized).
[p]During my graduate career the PI defined the role and informed me on Day 1 that I would understudy with the current LSO for a period of 1 year before taking over the responsibilities.
[q]Hmm, understudying seems like a good idea. My PI changes who fills the role every 1-3 years, and it’s usually a pretty rapid transition with little to no cross-talk or training
[r]Does this infer transparency about incidents and near-misses?
[s]I am not sure what exactly is meant by “open communication” in this context, but I think that ideally, yes, it would include transparency about incidents and near-misses (perhaps protecting identities as appropriate to encourage safe reporting).
I think this is the case because, in order to engage in and improve upon safe behavior, it’s necessary to talk about it and know about it when incidents/near-misses happen. If there is no transparency or if people don’t feel comfortable talking about it / reporting or otherwise don’t think it’s necessary, I think this harms collaborative engagement and works to “hide” the problem.
[t]I don’t know if the safety profession understands how to share information about incidents and near-misses well enough to call anything related to incident review “transparent”
[u]Agreed, I was simply relating to transparency within the institution. Which I’ve seen across the spectrum in terms of openness.
[v]A lot of the champions at the University of Tennessee would be junior faculty already stretched to publish/secure grants. I feel they would be reluctant to take on the Champion role.
[w]What about a lab manager or some one who might already be fulfilling the role of a Champion?
[x]few of our labs have full-time staff, but that is a good starting point. Thanks
[y]I think that one characteristics of a safety champion is that they will step forward to address out of personal conviction rather than waiting to be asked.
I have experience with people who accepted the responsibility but didn’t seek it out. They almost always found out that they were in over their head, either technically or in terms of their time budget.
For this reason, I prefer rely more on short term project based teams rather than open ended commitments such as safety committees. The mission these teams can be tailored to the resources available to the people interested in working on them
[z]Faculty champions, particularly those in upper structure of administration, are highly valuable.
[aa]I love this idea and am wondering how people have created this synergistic relationship
[ab]@email@example.com has mentioned trying to advocate for safety to be included in faculty evaluations at his institution, as have others including @firstname.lastname@example.org. Would be great to read their comments in this thread!
[ac]We now have a monthly meeting between Safety Pros and researchers.
[ad]We are required to include what we have done to improve the state of safety in both our teaching and research as part of our faculty evaluation, and we just started a $25,000 annual prize for departments exhibiting strong or improved safety cultures.
[ae]Surprisingly – I am getting pushback from faculty about including a safety component in evaluations. They think it could not be done fairly due to higher/lower hazard levels of research being done.
[af]That’s one of the reasons why it is a bit more open-ended in our evaluations. Safety education can be included in a variety of ways, not just in research labs.
[ag]Do not just focus on research aspect of safety…there are others: do you feel welcome, reducing incidents of harassment, work-life balance to name a few. I now have the Statistics Department requested yearly trainings on such topics. Research safety is more than just what happens in the lab.
[ah]@Dominick – how is the prize decided? Criteria? Evaluating process? Thanks, Jon
[ai]There is a university committee that evaluates the applications. It is a six-page narrative answering three questions. Applications are rated on how well they address the criteria in the questions. If interested I can share the application.
[aj]This is one of the reasons our School utilizes in house H&S, separate from EH&S. We help mediate the balance with the labs to make them more comfortable.
[al]I have been learning a great deal about attempts like this within the last year. So much seems to depend on how they are funded and/or who their “boss” actually is in terms of effectiveness. @email@example.com had proposed a White Paper on this topic within CSHEMA awhile back – I keep hoping someone picks this up and runs with it because I think knowing about how to structure this role effectively will be very important for other institutions exploring the idea.
[am]That’s a great approach, assuming you can get collegial collaboration between the two entities.
[an]This is something in my experience that is even individual lab-dependent. Some graduate students/labs in our department feel that their relationship with EHS is a partnership while others view it as more antagonistic. Unclear if this is from existing biases or due to individual lab cultures.
[ao]This is something that we also experience at Tennessee.
[ap]This is a really good point & something I think needs to be discussed more when talking about “safety culture.” It is very difficult to argue that there is a university-wide or even department-wide “safety culture” when labs can function so independently from one another.
[aq]Some of this may be related to the metrics being used by EHS to assess program efficacy. Compliance elements may often be easier to track.
[ar]Agree with all! This is something we definitely experience at UC. I also see Chris’s point, that the ease of compliance tracking can make their role appear a certain way, at least to some people.
[as]The ACS division of chemical health and safety maintains an LST listserv open to join!
[at]Has anyone created an LST through an official university student group in order to tap into those funds?
[au]At our university it was considered, but funding restrictions made it not worth the hassle. I.e. Events planned with funds from the university must be open to all disciplines. Most of our events would not have qualified.
[av]The JST @ UNC is an officially registered student group with the university for this purpose. We’re still new and haven’t actually applied for any funds explicitly, but it seemed like a smart idea, as student fee funding may be more widely accessible than departmental discretionary funds given the current times.
The only “trade-off” we’ve encountered so far is it places some restrictions on who can hold official leadership positions (have to be students) and the makeup of the “club” has to be predominantly students
[aw]At Uchicago, we recently became a Registered Student Organization and now have access to different/more funds. It remains to be seen what type of impact this will have since there are many more constraints on funding and event-type for RSOs. However, as of now, it looks like as long as we keep two separate streams of revenue and maintain good bookkeeping, we will be able to have the best of both worlds (ie, RSO money only goes to events that are open to all, that don’t have alcohol, etc.) If we need more insular events or want to purchase awards, gifts, alcohol, etc., we use other sources of funding.
[ax]Also, some groups (including UConn JST) have applied to become ACS-GSOs in order to access funds & support through ACS – however, this requires a certain amount of your leadership be ACS members which wouldn’t make much sense for groups that are not chemistry-dominated. Because of that requirement, I know LSTs that have decided not to become ACS-GSOs.
[ay]We have a university-wide (undergraduate) student group that is run out of chemical engineering.
[az]All great feedback! Thank you! I plan to share some of these ideas my colleagues.
[ba]I love the use of safety moments or minutes! It makes thinking about safety more mainstream and less of an add-on or speciality.
[bb]Seconded! More first hand help over accident follow ups. We have been adding these to our LSC (lab safety coordinator) meetings to promote the exchange of stories between the researchers.
[bc]We’ve had some trouble getting this implemented effectively at UChicago. Some of the problems we’ve had are:
- -Ensuring that we’re presenting correct information / getting EHS signoff
- -Getting community buy-in
[bd]So much of the value they can bring depends on how they are used. I have read some articles/blogs talking about what I see happening in academia as well – if it is just someone (somewhat reluctantly) doing “the thing”, then moving on, they are not effective. However, if the presenter turns to the group and begins engaging them on the topic, then it is more effective. I mention in the paper at some point an LST that used “Safety Moments” to start meetings specifically focused on a particular hazard and invited those researchers to contribute their personal stories and how they deal with challenges – so there is more of a “group share” opportunity to engage.
[be]This raises an interesting point to me about the psychology of safety. As researchers/presenters begin to share their experiences with their audience or research group, I wonder if they become more invested or take more ownership in their safety training or understanding?
[bf]My experience is that safety champions do evolve from personal experiences. However, they can also burn out on safety over time and may not be thinking in terms of recruiting successors to carry the program on
[bg]Is there gauge as to the efficacy of this vs. 100% student led?
[bh]Good question. We did not start out with questions regarding effectiveness. This was an exploration of who was actually doing this organizational structure at all. We were specifically seeking teams in which graduate students (plural) were involved in the management of the team itself. A few teams were included who I would argue now are not quite what we had in mind – however, they were heavily involved with Dow early on which is why we included them here. As the movement as moved beyond the initial Dow influence, we have seen less “faculty leadership” and more graduate student leadership.
[bi]maybe less about “management”. Just wondering if having a faculty or staff member (specifically EHS type) could help the LST craft wording on comments/concerns to faculty/dept./etc… so that they might be more effectively addressed.
[bj]I do see your point in that regard. The opposing concern I have comes from experiences in “student-led groups” in which a non-student becomes the dominating force. This can often shut down conversation, sometimes in very settle ways. Students will often look to that non-student to tell them what to do. Once you kick “the adults” out of the room, you often find that the students are much more aware of the issues than you might have thought and come up with things that “the adult” never would’ve thought of. It is why I think it is important that leadership truly comes from the students – with a good supporting role played by faculty + safety professionals.
[bk]I agree that this faculty or staff champion is core to the success of a LST program. However, their good is not likely to be sufficient to develop a successful safety program.
The papers we reviewed last semester demonstrated that there is significant safety-domain expertise that needs to partner with the subject matter expertise provided by faculty champions. For that reason, I think that compliance issues need to be recognized as part of the LST environment and well understood at the LST leadership level.
[bl]Agreed! And I think safety personnel can/should offer the background into the necessity for the compliance aspects as educational opportunities. Rather than simply the “because its required/regulatory” explanation.
[bm]I also agree. Students need to see many sides of the safety process.
[bn]This is a primary reason we are considering creation of an LST. Our industry partners want their employees to be able to walk in and know A LOT more about safety and be able to be a safety leader
[bo]We are trying to use this a selling point to try to establish an LST
[bp]Our LST had an initial moderate success with this approach.
[bq]We also use this as a selling point
[br]This right here is why I was interested in this domain. I came to grad school knowing I wanted to go into industry. I kept hearing that PhD programs are under-preparing for this aspect of chemical work and I felt like that was A PROBLEM! Especially since chemistry is one of those fields in which you typically see more students wanting to go into industry than academia.
[bs]I think this also speaks to the safety culture of the institution in terms of how much this is weighed as service. The stronger the safety culture, the more this is valued?
[bt]Agree. I think there comes a tipping point where enough members of faculty agree that safety has to be a priority to push it forward into a more generative safety culture. An LST can help bring attention and some action toward letting faculty know it is important to students.
[bu]Maybe we are anomalous, but I agree with you in the sense that our administration listens very strongly to our graduate students, being “front line workers” and all.
[bv]I think it can be tough for many grad students to be the ones to bring these issues forward. When you start, you don’t know what is going on (and you naively trust that everything is functioning as it should) and by the time you are knowledgeable enough to identify problems & suggest solutions, you are frantically writing your thesis and trying to graduate.
[bw]Agreed on not becoming invisible work or even a burden on the researchers. Some documentation like SOPs are encouraged but not mandatory/forced. Ultimately the Faculty have the final say and approval in this regard but the support is there.
[bx]I believe the safety training is minimum. What matters is lab specific training using the LST and PIs.
[by]Effective safety training also requires a clear definition of the work to be done; often these descriptions are not available, too vague or quickly out of date in the modern research laboratory. Addressing this challenge requires an ongoing communication bridge between people in the lab and support services provided at other levels of the institution
One example of this is the false distinction between biosafety and chemical safety. This distinction is based the requirements of funding sources rather than prudent risk assessment of laboratory hazards.
[bz]Agree with Ralph!
[cb]As a biological chemist, agreed 🙂
[cc]I think this is key, but sometimes struggle with how to go about doing this effectively without it seeming like a bunch of extra work is being heaped on to people who are already feeling spread pretty thin.
[cd]Part of it may be poor/limited awareness of the value-added aspects of safety and quality management. Both find FAR greater emphasis and expectation in industry/private sector. Many have yet to experience those expectations in their graduate careers.
[ce]My experience is that the extra work associated with safety efforts today pays off 6 months later when safety documentation is an important source of information about what someone who left the lab was doing.
[cg]This is definitely a tough one. Our LST recently did a training on RAMP. While I think it was good info & a well done single training, I full well know that if the PI doesn’t turn to their grad student and say “show me your RAMP analysis on this experiment”, the grad students will very likely NOT be performing them – no matter how great the training made them sound
[ch]The PIs play an important role in laboratory safety. Only having LST will not make great progress in overall lab safety.
[ci]Agreed. I have been frustrated by a great deal of the safety culture literature because it is aimed at leadership. If I am a graduate student whose leadership is taking no action, basically I feel like I am left out to dry. In this sense, LSTs can organize those feelings into a voice to attempt to make leadership pay more attention.
[cj]There’s also quite a bit of work on the effects of buy-in from on-the-ground workers, as well as leveraging their expertise and knowledge since they’re the ones actually working with the hazards. The way I see it, an equal collaboration between top-down and bottom-up approaches would be the most effective.