During the 2020-21 academic year, an average of between 15 and 20 people gathered to review and discuss academic papers relevant to lab safety in academia.
During the fall, we followed the traditional model of a presenter who led the discussion after the group was encouraged to read the paper. In the spring, we began a two-step process: first a table read where the group silently collaboratively commented on an abbreviated version of the paper in a shared google document one week and then had an oral discussion the second week. The second approach enabled much more engagement by the group as a whole.
The spring papers we discussed were primarily focused on graduate student led Lab Safety Teams and included (in reverse chronological order):
We will pick up the Journal Club again in the fall of 2021. We are interested in looking at the psychology of safety with 2 things in mind:
(1) papers with well-done empirical studies, and
(2) studies that investigate an issue that is present in academia.
It is likely that papers that are investigating the psychology of safety have focused primarily on industry (construction, airplanes, etc), so it will be important to identify the specific phenomenon they are investigating and be prepared to translate it to academia. Questions about the CHAS Journal Club can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
The improvement and enrichment of an organization’s safety culture are common goals throughout both industrial and academic research. As a chemical process development organization that designs and develops safe, efficient, environmentally appropriate and economically viable chemical processes for the manufacture of small molecule drug substances, we continually strive to improve our safety culture. Cultivating and energizing a rich safety culture is critical for an organization whose members are performing a multitude of processes at different scales using a broad spectrum of hazardous chemical reagents as its core activities. While we certainly place an emphasis on utilizing greener materials and safer reagents, the nature of our business requires us to work with all types of hazardous and reactive chemicals and the challenges we face are pertinent to any chemical research organization.
In our organization of approximately 200 organic and analytical chemists[a] and chemical engineers, we have a Safety Culture Team (SCT) [b][c][d][e][f][g]whose mission is to develop programs to enhance the organization’s safety culture. To make this culture visible, the team developed a key concept, Safety is Part of Your Daily Routine, into a brand with its own logo SPYDR. To build on this concept, we designed a program known as the SPYDR Lab Visits shown in Figure 1. The program engages our senior leadership[h][i] by having them interact with our scientists directly at the bench in the laboratory[j][k][l][m] to discuss safety concerns. This program, initiated in 2013, has visibly engaged our senior leaders directly in the organization’s safety culture and brought to our attention a wide range of safety concerns that would not readily appear[n][o][p] in a typical safety inspection. Furthermore, this program provides a mechanism for increased communication between all levels of the organization by arranging meetings between personnel who may not normally interact with one another on a regular basis. The success of this program has led to similar programs across other functional areas in the company.[q]
A key safety objective for all organizations is to ensure that the entire organization can trust that the leadership is engaged in and supportive of the safety culture. [r][s][t][u]Therefore this program was designed to (1) emphasize that safety is a top priority from the top of the organization to the bottom[v][w][x][y][z], (2) engage our senior leadership with a prominent role in the safety conversations in the organization, (3) build a closer relationship between our senior leaders and the laboratory occupants and (4) utilize the feedback obtained from the visits to make the working environment better for our scientists. The program is a supplement to and not a replacement for the long standing laboratory inspection program done by the scientists in the organization.
The program involves assigning the senior leaders to meet with 2–5 scientists in the scientists’ laboratory. There are approximately 40 laboratories in the organization, and over the course of the year, each laboratory will meet with 2–3 senior leaders and each senior leader will visit 4–6 different laboratories. All of this is organized using calendar entries which informs the senior leaders and scientists of where and when to meet, and contains the survey link to collect the feedback.
As a result of this program, our senior leaders engage our bench scientists in conversations that are primarily driven to draw out the safety concerns of our scientists. However, these conversations can run the gamut of anything that is a concern to our team members[aa][ab]. This can range from safety issues, laboratory operations, and current research work to organizational changes and personal concerns. The senior leadership regularly reminds and encourages the scientists to engage on any topic of their choosing; this creates a collegial atmosphere for laboratory occupants to voice their safety concerns and ideas.
The laboratory visit program was modeled around the Safety SPYDR and thus we designed the program to have 8 legs[ac]. The first two legs consist of the program’s goals for the visit. We asked the senior leaders to ensure that they state the purpose of the program, that they are visiting the laboratory to find ways to improve lab safety. The second leg, which is the primary goal, is to ask “what are your safety concerns?”. Often this is met with “we have no safety concerns”, but using techniques common in the interviewing process, the leaders ask deeper probing questions to draw out what the scientists care about and with additional probing[ad][ae][af][ag], root causes of the safety concerns will emerge. Once the scientists start talking about one safety concern, often multiple concerns will then surface, thus giving our safety teams an opportunity to deal with these concerns.
The next two legs of the SPYDR Lab visits consist of observations we ask our senior leaders to make on laboratory clutter and access to emergency equipment[ah]. If the clutter level of a laboratory is deemed unacceptable,[ai][aj][ak][al] the SCT will look to provide support to address root causes of the clutter. Typical solutions have been addition of storage capacity, removal of excess equipment from the work spaces, and alternative workflows. The second observation is to ensure clear paths from the work areas to emergency equipment exist, should an incident occur. We wanted to make sure a direct line existed to the eyewash station/shower such that the occupant would not be tripping over excessive carts, chillers, shelving or miscellaneous equipment. These observations led to active coaching of our laboratory occupants to ensure safe egress existed and modifications to the work environment. For example, the relocation of many chillers to compartments underneath the hood from being on a cart in front of the hood enabled improved egress for a number of laboratories.
For the final four legs of the SPYDR Visit, we ask the senior leaders to probe for understanding on various topics[am] that range from personal protective equipment selection, waste handling, reactor setup and chemical hazards. The visitor is asked to rate these areas from needs improvements, to average, high, or very high. Figure 2 compares these ratings from the first year (2013) with the current year (2018). In the first year of the program, there were a few scattered “needs improvement” rating that resulted in communication with the line management of the laboratory. After the initial year, “needs improvement” ratings became very rare in all cases except clutter. In the current year, we shifted two topics[an] to Laboratory Ergonomics[ao] and Electricity, which uncovered additional opportunities for improvement. We recommend changing the contents of these legs on a regular basis[ap] as it shifts the focus of the discussion and potentially uncovers new safety concerns.
The SPYDR lab visits are built around a feedback loop illustrated in Figure 3 that utilizes an online survey to both track completion of the visits as well as to communicate findings back to the SCT. The order of events around a laboratory visit consist of scheduling a half hour meeting between our senior leaders and the occupants in their laboratories. Once the visit is completed, the visitors will fill out the simple online survey (Figure 4) that details their findings for the visit. The SCT will meet regularly to review the surveys and take actions based on the occupants’ safety concerns. This often involves following up with the team members in the laboratory to ensure they know their safety concerns were heard[aq][ar].
Two potential and significant detractors for this program exist. The first challenge is if the senior visitor does not show up for the visit, this results in a perception that senior management does not embrace safety as a top priority. The second pitfall is if the visitor uncovers a safety concern, but does not fill out the survey to report safety concerns, or if the SCT is unable to address a safety concern. In this case, there would be a perception that a safety concern was reported to a senior leader and “nothing happened”. To minimize these risks, there is significant emphasis for the senior leaders to take ownership of the laboratory visits[as][at] and for the SCT to take ownership of the action items and ensure the team members know their voices have been heard.
DISCUSSION OF SAFETY CONCERNS
A summary of safety concerns is illustrated in Table 1. By a wide margin, clutter was the predominant safety concern in 2013 as it was noted in 50% of the laboratories visited. Three major safety programs within the department were inspired by early visits in order to reduce clutter in the laboratories. This included several rounds of organized general laboratory cleanouts to remove old equipment[au][av]. A second program systematically purged old and/or duplicate chemicals throughout the department.[aw] Most recently, a third program created a systematic long term chemical inventory management system[ax][ay][az] that was designed to reduce clutter caused by the large number of processing samples stored in the department. This program has returned over 900 sq. feet of storage space to our laboratories and has greatly reduced the amount of clutter in the labs. Although clutter remains a common theme in our visits, the focus is now often related to removal of old instruments and equipment [ba][bb][bc][bd]rather than a gross shortage of storage space.
In the first year of the program, one aspect of the laboratory visit was to discuss hazards associated with chemical reactions (feedback rate of 28%) and equipment setup (32%). A common thread in these discussions were expectations of collaboration and behavior from “visiting scientists”. These “visiting scientists” were colleagues[be][bf][bg][bh] and project team members from other laboratories coming to the specific laboratory in order to use its specialized equipment (examples: 20 liter reactors, automated reactor blocks). This caused certain friction between the visiting scientists and their hosts on safety expectations. The SCT addressed this by convening a meeting between hosts and visiting scientists to discuss root causes of friction to produce a list of “best practices” shown in Figure 5 to improve the work experience for both hosts and visitors that is still in use for specialty labs with shared equipment today.[bi][bj]
The next major category of safety concerns for our laboratory visits was associated with facility repairs which was present in 24% of our first year visits. These included items such as leaking roofs, unsafe cabinet doors, or delays in re-energizing hoods after fire drills. These were addressed by connecting our scientists to the appropriate building managers who would be able to evaluate and address these safety concerns. After the initial year, most of the facility related concerns transitioned to the addition/removal of storage solutions within specific laboratories. Currently, when new laboratories are associated with the SPYDR Lab Visit program, major facility concerns will quickly be reported.
These visits also brought to light a common problem occurring in the laboratories, that is, the loss of electrical power associated with circuit breakers being tripped when the electrical outlets associated with a laboratory hood were being used at capacity. This led to the identification of the need to increase the electrical capacity in the fume hoods and this Is now being addressed by an ongoing capital project.
By the third year of the program, the nature of the safety concerns changed as many of the laboratory-based concerns had been addressed[bk]. Concerns raised now included site issues such as traffic patterns, pedestrian safety, walking in parking lots at night, and training. [bl]Among the items addressed for the site include on-site intersections being modified and movement of a fence line to enable safer crosswalks and improvements for the driver’s line-of-sight. A simple question raised about fire extinguisher training and who was permitted to use an AED device led to the expansion of departmental fire extinguisher training to a broader group and the offering of AED/CPR training to the broader organization.
These safety concerns would not be typically detected by a laboratory safety inspection program and are only accessible by directly asking the occupants what their safety concerns are. [bm][bn][bo]Through the SCT, these issues were resolved over time as the team took accountability to move the issue through various channels (facilities, capital projects, ordering of equipment) to develop and implement the solutions.
Since 2013, this novel program[bp] has successfully engaged our leadership with laboratory personnel and has led to hundreds of concerns being addressed[bq]. The concerns have arisen from over 300 laboratory visits, and more than a thousand safety conversations with our scientists. Because this is not a safety inspection program, these visits routinely uncover new safety concerns that would not be expected to surface in our typical laboratory inspection program. The SPYDR visit program is a strong supplement to the laboratory inspection program, and has produced a measurable impact on the safety culture.
A collateral benefit from the program is that it drives social interactions within the department where senior leaders who may not necessarily interact with certain parts of the organization have a chance to visit these team members in their workplace and learn firsthand what they do in the organization[br][bs][bt][bu].
[a]Only a bit bigger than some of the bigger graduate chemistry programs in the US.
[j]Was this a formal thing or out of the blue visits?
[k]initially planned as random, unannounced, we had to revert to scheduled in order to ensure scientists were present and available when leaders stopped in
[l]We had the same thing in academic lab inspections. While unannounced visits seemed more intuitive, the benefit of the visits wasn’t there if the lab workers weren’t available to work with the inspectors. So scheduling visits worked out better in the end
[m]In terms of compliance inspections, I would think that the benefit of scheduled inspections is that it can motivate people to clean their labs before the inspection. While I get that it would be preferable that they clean their labs more regularly, the announced visit seems like it would guarantee that all labs get cleaned up at least once per year. And maybe they’ll see the benefit of the cleaner lab and be more inspired to keep it cleaner generally – but I realize that might just be wishful thinking.
[n]So important. We keep running into the issues of experimental safety getting missed by 1-shot inspections.
[o]Some of that could be addressed with better risk assessment training of research staff.
[p]concerns are generally wide ranging, most started out as lab centric in the early years then expanded beyond the labs
[q]Are these other functional areas related to safety or other issues (e.g. quality control, business processes, etc.)
[r]This seems key but also can be super hard to obtain.
[s]I think that it requires leadership that is familiar with all of the different kinds of expertise in the orgainzation to say that. Higher ed contains so many different types of expertise, it is difficult for leadership to know what this commitment entails
[t]And far too often in my experience in academia those in leadership positions have limited management training, which can inhibit good leadership traits.
[u]Many academics promoted into chair or dean level get stuck on budgeting arguments rather than more strategic / visionary questions
[v]I’ve found this expectation to be quite challenging at some higher ed institutions.
[w]Everytime I bring it up to upper management in higher ed, they say “of course safety is #1”, but they don’t want to spend their leadership capital on it.
[x]the program was designed to give senior leaders a role specifically designed for them
[z]This approach seems to be a way for leadership to get involved with out spending a lot of leadership capital.
I always had my best luck “inspecting” labs when I could lead with science-related questions rather than compliance issues
[aa]I think it is really cool that this is thought of expansively.
[ab]Nice to not put bounds on safety concerns going into the conversation. Reinforced later in the paper thru the identification and mitigation of hazards well outside the lab
[ac]Are these legs connected to on boarding training for lab employees?
[ad]This skill would be exceptionally important when discussing such issues with graduate students.
[ae]Are scientists trained in this technique? Or does the SCT have individuals selected for that skill set? When I look around campus at TTU I can see lots of opportunity for collaboration by bringing “non-scientists” into the discussion to get new perspectives and possibly see new problems
[af]This definitely takes practice, but it can also be learned in workshops and by observing good mentoring. The observation process requires a conscious commitment by both the mentor and the employee, though
[ag]one thought at least for me, was the interviewing experience senior folks would have and this would be a chance to practice said skill
[ah]Seems like the process could have some standard topics that can be replaced with new focus areas as the program matures or issues are addressed
[ai]Lab clutter is an ongoing stress for me. Is the clutter related to current work or a legacy of previous work that hasn’t been officially decommissioned yet?
Did your organization develop a set of process decommissioning criteria to maintain lab housekeeping?
[aj]Part of me feels that all researchers should at some point visit/tour a trace analytical laboratory. Contamination is always of such concern when looking for things at ppb/ppt/ppq levels, that clutter rarely develops. But outside of trace analysis laboratory its definitely a continuous problem in most research spaces.
[ak]This is a good idea. I wonder if Bristol Myers Squibb has a program to rotate scientists among different lab groups to share “cross-cultural” learning?
[al]@Chris – good point. I started research in a molecular genetics lab. While there were some issues, the benches and hoods were definitely MUCH cleaner and better organized because of concerns over contamination. Also, we have lab colonies of different insects in which things had to be kept very clean in order to keep lab-acquired disease transmission low for the insects. I was FLOORED by what I saw in chemistry labs once I joined my department. We very much had different ideas about what “clean” meant.
[am]I really like this idea as well. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
[an]I like the idea of shifting focus the previous issues have been addressed
[ao]Great to see emphasis on an often overlooked topic
[ap]Would reviewing these legs annually be regular enough? Or too often?
[aq]So important – people are more willing to discuss issues if they feel like someone is really listening and is prepared to actually address the issues.
[ar]And it demonstrates true commitment to the program and improvements. Supports the trust built between the different stakeholders.
[as]Is there some sort of training or prepping down with these senior leaders?
[at]a short training session occurs to introduce leaders to the purpose of the program
[au]Thank you! This is a challenge for all laboratory organizations I have worked for
[av]Agreed! Too often things are kept even when there is no definitive plan for future use.
[aw]What % of the chemical stock did this purge represent?
[ax]I’m always amazed when I learn of a laboratory that attempts to function without a structured chemical management system. The ones without are often those that duplicate chemical purchases, often in quantities of scale (for price savings) that far exceed their consumption need.
[ay]I once asked the chem lab manager about this. He said that 80% of his budget is people and 15% chemicals. He’d rather focus his time on managing the 80% than the 15%.
He had a point, but I think he was passing up an important opportunity with that approach
[az]@Chris – and grad students waste loads of time looking for the reagents and glassware they need for their experiments. And when they find them, sometimes they have been so poorly stored/ignored that they are contaminated or otherwise useless. Welcome to my lab!
[ba]is this more of a challenge in academia vs. industry?
[bb]This is definitely a pretty big issue for us at the university I work at. Constant struggle.
[bc]One of the things I found frustrating while working at a govt lab is that I found out that we legally weren’t allowed to donate old equipment. I was simultaneously attending a tiny PUI nearby who would have LOVED to take the old equipment off their hands. Now working in an academic lab, I have been able to snag some donated equipment from industry labs.
[bd]@Jessica as someone presently in government research I share your frustration! I have to remind myself that the government systems are all too often setup to prevent abuse, rather than be efficient and benevolent.
[be]Are these other laboratories from within your organization or external partners?
[bf]visitors from other labs within the department,
[bg]We had that challenge to some extent, but the bigger issues arose when visitors from other campuses showed up with different safety expectations than we were trying to instill. International visitors were a particularly interesting challenge…
[bh]@Ralph that was often my experience too, dramatically differing safety expectations now being asked to share research space.
[bi]I wish this occurred with greater frequency in academia. Too often folks are too concerned about hurting a colleagues’ feelings or ego than to have a conversation to address safety concerns.
[bj]I like the best practices approach- less prescriptive and allows researchers some latitude in meeting the requirements. Provides an opportunity for someone (who is a subject matter expert in their field) to come up with a better solution
[bk]That’s great, shows a commitment to the program and supports the trust that has been built between the stakeholders.
[bl]These are important issues in setting the tone of a safety culture for an organization
[bq]Since I’m sure these were tracked, this is a nice metric- prevalence of a particular concern over time.
[br]does this go both ways at all? do the research scientists have the chance to ask how their research projects impact the goals of senior leadership/company?
[bs]there is a social interaction aspect here were scientists will get to interact with leaders they normally would not cross paths with, we can take this opportunity for our analytical leaders to visit chemists, chemistry leaders to visit engineers and engineering leads to visit analytical chemists
[bt]Did business leadership (sales, marketing, etc.) have the opportunity to see this kind of interaction? Or do they have separate interactions with lab staff?
[bu]In higher ed, it would be interesting to take admissions staff on lab tours to inform them about what is going on there and potentially give feedback about what students and parents are interested in
As a profession, contemporary scientists enjoy an unusual degree of autonomy and deference. Universities are professional-bureaucracies (Mintzberg 1979). One side of the organization is collegial, collectively governed, participatory, consensual, and democratic. The other side is a Weberian, hierarchical, top-down bureaucracy with descending lines of authority and increasing specialization. These organizational structures may allow for differential interpretations of and responses to legal mandates and differential experiences of regulation and self governance. They often disadvantage regulators and administrative support staff, who occupy lower-status positions with less prestige, in their efforts to monitor, manage, and constrain laboratory hazards (Gray and Silbey 2011). What is regarded as academic freedom by the faculty and university administration looks like mismanagement, if not anarchy, to regulators[a]…[b].Herein lies the gravamen of the risk management problem: the challenge of balancing academic freedom and scientific autonomy with the demand for responsibility and accountability[c][d][e][f][g][h].
We…describe the efforts of one university, Eastern University, to create a system for managing laboratory health, safety, and environmental hazards and to transform established notions that =faculty have little obligation to be aware of administrative and legal procedures.[i][j][k] We describe the setting—Eastern University, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspection, and a negotiated agreement to design a system for managing laboratory hazards—and our research methods.
We describe efforts, through the design of the management system, to create prescribed consequences for noncompliant practices in laboratories. We show that in an effort to design a management system that communicates regulatory standards, seeks compliance with the requirements[l], and then attempts to respond and correct noncompliant action, Eastern University struggled to balance case-by-case discretion consistent with academic freedom and scientific creativity with the demands for consistent conformity, transparency, and accountability for safe laboratory practices.
Constructing Organizational Consequences at Eastern University: Management System as Solution?
During a routine inspection of Eastern University, a private research university in the eastern United States, federal EPA agents recorded more than three thousand violations of RCRA, CAA, CWA, and their implementing regulations. Despite the large number of discrete violations, both the EPA and the university regarded all but one as minor infractions. The university’s major failure, according to the EPA, was its lack of uniform practices across departments and laboratories on campus.[m][n][o][p] There was no clear, hierarchical organizational infrastructure for compliance with environmental laws, no clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, and, most importantly, no obvious modes of accountability for compliance….Without admitting any violation of law or any liability, the university agreed in a negotiated consent decree to settle the matter without a trial on any issues of fact or law.
At Eastern, the management system reconfigured the work of staff and researchers by moving compliance responsibility away from centralized specialists to researchers working at the laboratory bench. Scientists became responsible for ensuring that their daily research practices complied with city, state, and federal regulations. [q][r]This shift in responsibility was to be facilitated by the creation of operating manuals, inspection checklists, enhanced training, and new administrative support roles.[s][t][u][v][w][x][y][z][aa][ab][ac][ad][ae]
Research Methods: Observing the Design of an Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) Management System
From 2001 through 2007, we conducted ethnographic fieldwork at Eastern University to investigate what happens when compliance with legal regulations is pursued through a management system.
The fieldwork included observation, interviewing, and document collection. It was supplemented by data collection with standardized instruments for some observations and via several surveys of lab personnel and environmental management staff. For this article, we draw primarily from notes taken at meetings of the committee designing the system, presenting notes from the discussions concerning a catalog of consequences for poor performance required by the consent decree.
Building Responsiveness and Responsibility into an EHS-MS: Consequences for Departures from Specified Operating Procedures
The final version [of the management system manual] was agreed to only after hundreds of hours of negotiations among four basic constituencies: the academic leadership, the university attorney overseeing the consent decree, the environmental health and safety support staff located within the administration, a nonacademic hierarchy, and the lab managers and faculty within the academic hierarchy.[af][ag][ah]
These descriptions explain that each person, or role incumbent, works with a committee of faculty and staff of safety professionals that provides consultation, monitoring, and recommendations, although legal responsibility for compliance is placed entirely within the academic hierarchy, with ultimate disciplinary responsibility in a university-wide committee.
>What will constitute noncompliance?
Despite the adoption of the original distinctions between minor, moderate, and very serious incidents [described in a section not included in this Table Read], discussions continued about the relationship between these categories and the actual behavior of the scientists. How would the system’s categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” actions map onto normal lab behaviors? How much would the lives of the lab workers be constrained by overly restrictive criteria?[ai][aj][ak] As Professor Doty said, no one wanted the system to be like police surveillance. Labs are places where science students live, after all.[al][am] Once a basic list of unacceptable conditions and actions was created and communicated through safety training, the salient issue would be intentionality, as it is in much conventional legal discourse.
>Who will identify noncompliance?
Marsha (attorney for University): I think we’re going to need to be more specific, though, for university-wide committee policy. If the consequence of a particular action is termination from Eastern, then there’s policy in place for that, but what leads up to that? When do you shut down a lab?[an][ao] When do you require faculty to do inspections in departments like XYZ? A lot of people here have partial responsibility for things—the system may work well, but it’s not[ap] always clear who’s responsible. Where we need to end up is to remember this key link to the PI. In order for this to work, I think it really comes down to the PI accepting responsibility[aq], but how they deal with that locally is a very personal thing[ar][as][at][au]. I don’t think we should prescribe action, tell the PI how to keep untrained people out of [the] lab. But we need to convince the faculty of this responsibility.[av]
>How will those formally responsible in this now clearly delineated line of responsibility be informed?
Informing the responsible scientist turns out to be a complex issue at the very heart of the management system design, especially in the specifications about distribution of roles and responsibilities. In the end, Eastern’s EHS-MS named a hierarchy of responsibility, as described above, from the professor, up through the university academic hierarchy, exempting the professional support staff.[be][bf]
Despite the traceable lines of reporting and responsibility on the organizational charts, consultation, advice, and support was widely dispersed so that the enactment of responsibility and holding those responsible to account were constant challenges and remain so to this day. Most importantly, perhaps, because the faculty hold the highest status and yet hold the lowest level of accessibility and accountability, the committee was vexed as to how to get their attention about different types of violations.
Marsha: …So, while you’re defining responsibilities and consequences, make sure you don’t relieve the PI of his duties. You can assign them helpers, but they need to be responsible[bg][bh][bi]. There can be a difference between who actually does everything and who is responsible[bj]. You need to make sure people are clear about that.
Marsha: We need to convince the faculty of this responsibility….This is what we should be working on this summer. This is unfortunately the labor intensive part—we need to keep “looping back”—going to people’s offices and asking their opinions so they don’t hear things for the first time at [some committee meeting].[bk]
Marsha: We need department heads and the deans to help us with PIs in the coming months…. We need to get PIs—if we don’t get them engaged the system will fail….We will get them by pointing out all the support there is for them, but bottom line is they have to buy into taking responsibility.[bl][bm][bn][bo][bp][bq][br][bs]
In the end, the system built in three formal means to secure the faculty’s attention and acknowledgement of their responsibility for laboratory safety: (1) A registration system was implemented, in which the EHS personnel went from one faculty office to another registering the faculty and his or her lab into the system’s database. The faculty were required to sign a document attesting that they had read the list of their responsibilities and certifying that the information describing the location, hazards, and personnel in their lab was correct for entry into the database. (2) All faculty, as well as students, were required to complete safety training courses. Some are available online, some in regularly scheduled meetings, and others can be arranged for individual research groups in their own lab spaces. The required training modules vary with the hazards and procedures of the different laboratories. (3) Semiannual university inspections and periodic EPA inspections and audits were set up to provide information to faculty, as well as the university administration and staff, about the quality of compliance in the laboratories. Surveys of the faculty, students, and staff, completed during the design process and more recently, repeatedly show that familiarity with the EHS system varies widely.
Although the audit found full compliance in the form of a well-designed system, it also revealed that many of the faculty and some administrators did not have deep knowledge of it,[bt] despite the effort at participatory design.
>What action should be taken?
Consequences vary with the severity of the incident.
It was essential to the design of the system that there be discretionary responses to minor incidents, which are inevitably a part of science.
It was assumed[bu] that regular interaction with the lab safety representative, discussions in group sessions, and regular visits by the EHS coordinator would identify these and correct them on the spot with discussion and additional direction. The feedback would be routine, semiautomatic in terms of the ongoing relationships between relatively intimate colleagues in the labs and departments. No written documents would even record the transaction unless it was an official inspection; weekly self-inspections by the safety reps were not to be fed into the data system.[bv][bw][bx][by][bz][ca][cb][cc][cd][ce]
Consequences for moderately serious incidents include one or more of the following actions: oral or written warning(s) consistent with university human resources policies; a peer review of the event with recommendations for corrective action; a written plan by a supervisor [cf]that may include retraining, new protocols, approval from the department EHS committee, and a follow-up plan and inspection; or suspension of activities until the corrective plan is provided, or completed, as appropriate.
A list of eight possible consequence[cg][ch][ci]s accompanies the definition of a very serious incident. The list begins with peer review and a written plan, as in moderately serious incidents, but then includes new items: appearance before the university’s EHS committee or other relevant presidential committees to explain the situation, to present and get approval of a written plan to correct the situation, and to implement the plan; restriction of the involved person’s authority to purchase or use regulated chemical, biological, radioactive, or other materials/equipment; suspension or revocation of the laboratory facility’s authorization to operate; suspension of research and other funds to the laboratory/facility; closure of a lab or facility; and applicable university personnel actions, which may include a written warning, suspension, termination, or other action against the involved person(s) as appropriate.
These descriptions illustrate the sequential escalation of requirements and consequences and display, rather boldly we think, the effort of the committee to draft a legal code for enforcement of the management system’s requirements.
When the committee completed its work, Marsha, the lead attorney, went to work editing it. When it was returned to the committee, the changes, many of which were grammatical rather than substantive, nonetheless so offended the group that participation in the planning process ceased for a long while.[cj][ck][cl] The associate dean communicated to the EHS leadership that morale among the coordinators and other committee members from the laboratories was low and that their willingness to do their best was being compromised. They believed that the decisions they made collectively in the working meetings were being undermined and changed so that at subsequent meetings, documents did not read as they were drafted; they believed that crucial “subtleties, complexities and nuances to policies and proposals” were being ignored, if not actively erased. If they were to continue working together, they asked for complete minutes and officially recorded votes.
Nonetheless, it was the scientists’ and their representatives’ fear that the system would in fact become what a system is designed to be: self-observant and responsive and, thus, would eventually and automatically escalate what were momentary and minor actions into moderate, if not severe, incidents. This anxiety animated the planning committee’s discussions, feeding the desire to insert qualifications and guidelines to create officially sanctioned room for discretionary interpretation.
>Who will be responsible for taking action to correct the noncompliant incident?
Clearly, most minor incidents are to be handled in situ, when observed, through informal conversation, and the noncompliant action is supposed to be corrected by the observer’s instruction and the lab worker’s revised action. Some noncompliance is discovered through inspections that inform the PI of noncompliant incidents; a follow-up inspection confirms that the PI instructed her students to change their ways. Very few incidents actually move up the pyramid of seriousness.
A significant proportion of the chronically reported incidents are associated with the physical facilities and materials in the laboratories[cm], such as broken sashes on the hoods, eye washes not working or absent, missing signage, inadequate tagging on waste, empty first aid kits, or crowding—simply not enough benches or storage areas for the number of people and materials in the lab…Corrections are not always straightforward or easy to achieve.[cn] Tagging of waste, proper signage, and adequate first aid kits may be fixed within a few minutes by ordering new tags and signs from the EHS office and a first aid kit through the standard purchasing process. While the lab may order its own supplies, it must wait for the EHS office to respond with the tags and signs. The hood sashes and eye wash repairs depend on the university facilities office, which is notoriously behind in its work and thus appears unresponsive. In nearly every conversation about how to respond to failed inspections, discussion turned to the problems with facilities (cf. Lyneis 2012[co])…crowding is often the consequence of more research funding than actual space: the scientist hires more students and technicians than there are lab benches. This has been a chronic issue for many universities, with lab construction lagging behind the expansion of research funding over the last 20 years.
Just as the staff experienced the faculty as uninterested in the management system, the scientists experienced a “Don’t bother me” attitude in the staff, because often the ability to take corrective action does not rest entirely with the persons formally responsible for the lab.[cp][cq][cr][cs][ct] The PI depends on the extended network of roles and responsibilities across the university to sustain a compliant laboratory. This gap between agency (the ability to perform the corrective action) and accountability (being held responsible and liable for action) characterizes the scientists’ experience of what they perceive as the staff’s attitude of “Don’t bother me.” The management system is, after all, a set of documents, not a substitute for human behavior.
Discussion and Conclusion
In this article, we have used the case Eastern University to show how coordination and knowledge problems embedded in complex organizations such as academic research laboratories create intractable regulatory and governance issues and, unfortunately, sometimes lead to serious or even deadly outcomes. Overlaying bureaucratic procedures on spaces and actors lacking a sense of accountability to norms that may in real or perceived terms interfere with their productivity highlights the central challenge in any regulatory system: to balance autonomy and expertise with responsibility and accountability. Under these conditions, accountability may be, in the end, illusory.
…Rather than an automatically self-correcting system of strictly codified practices, Eastern’s EHS-MS relies on case-by-case discretion that values situational variation and accommodation. Compromises between conformity and autonomy produce a system that formally acknowledges large and legitimate spaces for discretionary interpretation while recognizing the importance of relatively consistent case criteria and high environmental, health, and safety standards. [cu][cv][cw][cx]Marsha, Eastern’s principal attorney, noted the difficulties of balancing standardized ways of working in high-autonomy settings, voicing concern about “the exceptions [that] gobble up the rule.” The logic of the common law is reproduced in the EHS-MS because, like our common law, only some cases become known and part of the formal legal record: those that are contested, litigated, and go to appeal. In this way, the formal system creates a case law of only the most unusual incidents while the routine exceptions gobble up the rule.
…safer practices and self-correcting reforms are produced by surrounding the pocket of recalcitrant actors who occupy the ground level of responsibility with layers of supportive agents who monitor, investigate, and respond to noncompliant incidents. In the end, we describe not an automatic feedback loop but a system that depends on the human relationships that constitute the system’s links.[cy][cz][da]
[b]The quote “They spent all this time wondering if they could, that no one thought to think about if they should” is the first thing that comes to mind when I read this sentence.
[c]Why are these viewed as diametrically opposed? They can be complimentary
[d]In practice, have you found this to be the case? I find this perspective interesting, because at least in my experiences and the experiences of those I’ve interacted with, practically, they do often conflict (or, at least are *perceived* as conflicting, which really may be all that matters, culturally)
[e]In many of the issues I have explored as a grad student, I have noticed that this “freedom” often translates into no one actually being responsible for things for which someone really SHOULD be responsible. And if faculty step up to take responsibility, they are often taking on that responsibility alone.
[f]I think it’s strongly dependent on awareness (often via required training) and leadership expectations. In instances where both were sound and established, I’ve seen these elements to be complimentary.
[g]I wonder what this training would look like. In my experience, a lot of training is disregarded as an administrative hoop to jump through every once in a while. I also think it’s wildly dependent on the culture of the university, as it exists. There is often little recourse to leverage over faculty to modify their behavior if it’s not (1) hired in, (2) positively incentivized, or (3) socially demanded by faculty peers. It seems difficult to me to try to newly instill such training requirements, with the goal of making PIs aware of their responsibility for ensuring safety. If there are no consequences (short of a major accident drawing the eye of the law), no social pressure to engage in safe behavior, and no positive incentive structure to award participation, why would faculty change their behavior? Many of them are already aware of the safety requirements—many of them just choose to prefer short term productivity and to prioritize other metrics. In an ideal world, I think I would agree with you that training at the University level would be sufficient, but I think there needs to be a much broader discussion of faculty *motivation*, not just their awareness.
[h]Agreed, the culture/environment aspects are huge in terms of how such awareness training is received. There’s multiple incentive models, and I’d hope that legal liability isn’t the only one that would lead to proactive action.
[i]Sounds like a training deficiency if that’s the perception.
[m]This is a bit vague. Uniform practices? A one size fits all approach?
[n]This caught me out a bit as well. If all they were finding were minor infractions, do we actually have a problem here?
[o]I’m curious what these “minor infractions” were, though. What’s the scale? What’s the difference between a major and minor infraction? 3,000 opportunities for individual chemical exposures or needle pricks may be considered small when it comes to the EPA, but it seems quite substantial when it comes to individual health and safety
[p]In general, minor infractions involve things like labellng of waste containers, storage times in accumulatins areas, etc. without any physical resulting impacts. EPA writes these up and can fine for them, but infractions don’t involve physical damange
[q]Interesting…. this is what caused problems for us at Texas Tech before our accident. Individual oversight often meant no oversight…
[r]Agreed, some form of checks-and-balances should be implemented to verify elements are being completed.
[s]In my experience this is often a techniques employed by higher administration to shift the blame on frontline researchers and their supervisors.
Combine with an underfunded EHS department and this situation results in no oversight or enforcement of these requirements.
[t]But administrators are not experts as the PIs claim they are, If PI’s want freedom and recognition as experts then they do need to be held accountable but EMPOWERED by providing support mechanisms. Responsibility without empowerment is useless.
[u]My eyes immediately went to the “new admin support roles.” If you have someone who understands both the regulations and the relationships in the department, I would think that person would be more effective than someone who shows up from a different department once per year with a checklist.
[v]Agree with Anonymous. If you want the freedom, you take on the responsibility. Don’t want the responsibility, hand over the freedom.
[w]I agree that faculty should be responsible. The common arguments I hear is that faculty aren’t in the lab all the time and can’t always be responsible for what happens day to day. Sort of a cynical view that says that faculty are the idea people and others (students?) should be the implementers…
[x]I don’t think anyone expects them to be responsible for everything every single day though. I think the idea is that they should be responsible for setting the tone in their lab and having standards for the graduate researchers working in their labs – and they should be making an effort to visit their labs in order to walk around and make sure everything is operating as it should.
[y]@Jessica I agree, but if they aren’t overseeing the day-to-day elements, they need to assign that responsibility to someone and make that assignment known to the research group. AND they need to support and empower that individual.
[z]I think I agree with Jessica here. Perhaps, someone with an eye and responsibility for safety NOT being in the lab on the day-to-day is part of the problem. maybe it *should* be a responsibility of PIs to visit their labs, to organize them, to keep up safety standards, inventory, etc. Or, perhaps it is their responsibility to hire someone to do this, specifically. Perhaps these responsibilities should be traded for teaching responsibilities, and thus institutions with high research focus can focus on hiring research teachers and managers (PIs) who are trained as such, and teachers who are actually trained as teachers.
[aa]In the 1970’s and 80’s, externally funded PIs would hire people to do this kind of stuff (often called “lab wives”) but funding for this function was shifted to additional student support
[ab]Blending what Sara and anonymous said while student support has gone up, it has also become more transactional in that it is more linked to teaching duties, while research assistantships tend to be the exception in many “research heavy universities”.
[ac]I think the responsibility of the PI should be first to open the door for safety related discussions amongst the group, and then to make the final decision on acceptable behavior if consensus is not achieved. Following that, they should bare the responsibility of any ramifications of that decision. I think they can achieve awareness of what is happening in their lab without being there every day, but they need to continuously allow the researchers to voice their concerns
[ad]I also think that PI’s might need tools to help them be accountable. Particularly new faculty
[ae]This the unfortunate part of interdepartmental politics, how far is the new faculty wiling to speak up, when in 5 years the same older faculty members will be a part of their tenure decision.
[af]This goes to early commentary on the shifting of regulatory compliance to researchers: were any researchers involved in these discussions or were PIs/lab managers speaking for them in these discussions?
[ag]I’d hope some (if they existed at this institution) laboratory safety officers were participants.
[ah]Lab safety officers were often active participants, but often on a parallel track to the faculty level discussions. I guess which group carried more clout in the system design?
[ai]The wording of this question seems to imply that lab safety impedes on lab productivity
[aj]Building upon this, there is evidence that when safety concerns are not an issue (due to correct practices) productivity is actually better.
[ak]I don’t have evidence for this, but I think it depends on how prevalent compliance is. If everyone is being safe in their labs then I think overall productivity would go up. If some people start cutting corners then while they may get short term improvement in productivity, in the long term everybody suffers (evacuations and accident investigation halting research, bad laboratory practices accumulating, etc.)
[al]Does this imply that “students” are a class of people whose rights and responsibilities are different from other people in the laboratory?
[am]Or to put it another way – why are students living in their labs?
[an]One of the EHS professionals involved in these discussions told me “When you shut down one laboratory you have a mad faculty member; when you shut down a second, you have an environmental management system.”
[ao]Faculty do notice when their colleague’s labs are shut down…
[ap]In what way is the system “working well”? What mission is being served by the way the origional system was structured?
[ar]This seems contradictory to earlier comments that researchers are responsible for their own compliance
[as]The government does not believe this. They believe that the president of the institution is responsible for instituional compliance. The president of the institution may or may not believe that
[at]However, since the presidents turn over much more quickly than faculty, faculty often outwait upper admin interest in this issue
[au]I hear this a lot, but then I have to wonder what the word “responsibility” means in this context. The president of my university has never been to my lab, so how would he be responsible for it?
[av]The subtext I see here is that it would be awfully expensive to have the enough staff to do this
[aw]A ‘dish best served’ by faculty peers rather than university admin staff or legal.
[ax]I don’t believe faculty will have these conversations with each other due to politics. We can have someone they respect make assessments by doing a myriad of approaches including having industry people come visit.
[ay]Or in other words, who is willing to break be the bearer of bad news?
[az]I like this. When I have discussed having issues in my own lab with others outside of my institution, so many respond with “tell the head of the department.” And I’m surprised that they don’t seem to realize that this is fraught with issues – this person’s labs are right across the hall from mine – and this person visits his lab far more often – and this person has seen my lab – he already knows what is going on and has already chosen to “not see it.” Now what?
[ba]Building upon more that “head of department” does not actually mean higher in the hierarchy of authority. These people are still colleagues at the same level of authority most of the time.
[bb]I remember hearing during the research process for the NAS report on Academic Lab Safety, that Stanford Chem had an established structure for true peer inspections of other faculty spaces and in some instances risk assessment of new research efforts. From what I recall that was successful and implemented as that was the expectation. So maybe it just needs to be the expectation, rather than optional. Another alternative is you staff the administrative side with folks that have research experience, then the message may be better received.
[bc]I really like that idea – that faculty would be engaged in the risk assessment of new research efforts. You are right that it would have to be established as a norm at the university – not as optional work – or work that goes to a committee that virtually no one is on.
[bd]The biosafety world is run by a faculty involved oversight committee for grant proposals, for historical funding reasons. My experience is faculty are very reluctant to approach this process critically as peer review, but it does put biosafety issues on the agenda of the PI writing the grant
[be]Interesting that this group is left out. As an EHS employee I see an opportunity to be the consistency and impartiality across departments. Also can disseminate best practices that are implemented in some labs
[bf]Absolutely, and serve as a valuable mechanism for knowledge transfer.
[bg]Yes, delegate task responsibility but not ultimate liability.
[bh]Yes, we have a form we have for the delegation of tasks to the Lab Safety Coordinator (LSC). Ultimate responsibility at PI level, but allow them to delegate tasks using this form.
[bj]Lawyers believe this. Safety professionals not so much.
[bk]Should this responsibility be part of the on boarding process for new laboratory workers in general? I would note that “Eastern U” has had problem with grad student and postdoc misbehavior in the lab, including criminal acts against lab mates. These are handled by police rather than EHS, but EHS is often involved in assessing the degree of the problem.
[bl]Herein lies one of the problems with the unorganized academic hierarchy where PI’s fall into. While systems that improve safety should always attempt to be non-punitive, at the end of the day the repeat offenders still have the freedom to not comply.
This can become problematic if that particular faculty member has a more influential role and position in their department.
[bm]I agree with you that in this case study faculty may have the freedom not to comply until the situation escalates. It is not the case that this is always true. Some universities have the authority to shut down labs. There may be a mad faculty member, but it is a powerful statement to the rest of the faculty to get their acts together.
[bn]The thing about this, thought, is that shutting down a lab is very nearly the “nuclear” option. I would imagine it would be incredibly problematic to determine who deserves to have their lab shut down and who doesn’t. And what has to occur before the lab is allowed to reopen.
[bo]The other problem this presents is the impact of a lab closure on “innocent” grad students in the lab and colloborators with the lab, both on campus and externally. These factors can make for a very confusing conversation with PIs, chairs and deans, which I’ve had more than once
[bp]In my experience, the only time admin and safety committees have even considered lab shutdown is when there’s outright defiance of the expectations and no effort made to resolve identified safety and compliance issues. I’m not sure I’d considered those criteria as being a ‘nuclear’ option, seems more like enforced accountability IMHO.
[bq]I feel like what you just described is what I meant by “nuclear” option. Their doesn’t seem to be anything between “innocuous notice” and “lab shutdown.”
[br]Agree on the point as well about graduate students being the ones who actually “pay” in a lab shutdown. If a faculty member is tenured, then they are getting their paycheck and not losing their job while their lab is shutdown. However, it directly harms the graduate students in no uncertain terms.
[bs]@Jessica Then it sounds like the institution lacks some form of progressive discipline/resolution structure if there’s only one of two options. Sadly some of that (progressive discipline structure) needs to be created with the involvement of HR to ensure labor laws and bargaining unit contracts aren’t violated. But there absolutely needs to be a spectrum of progression of options before lab shutdown is all thats left. And yes, I agree that the graduate student(s) bear a disproportionate penalty at times in the event of a lab shutdown.
[bt]Is this after having the faculty sign on to the program through the registration process?
[bu]I would say “hoped” here rather than “assumed”
[bv]Why no documentation of the informal interactions/feedback? Or was it optional? From a regulators perspective, if it isn’t documented it never happened.
[bw]Good point. The accountability system could take the informality into account but if a lab racks up a bunch of minor, informal infractions it is probably indicative of culture.
[bx]I also worry that not having it documented could lead to the ability for the feedback to be “forgotten” or denied as to having happened in the future if a larger infraction occurs.
[by]This is something that was discussed as problematic in the paper. If it is undocumented, no one knows just how many warnings an individual has had. It is also one of the problems with solely relying on researchers watching out for each other. You don’t know how many times a convo was had and weather the issue was fixed OR the person just got tired of correctly their colleague.
[bz]We are trying a pilot program using this approach. A EH&S building sweep to build a relationships with labs and let them know we don’t just visit to document non-compliance. We are not sure what we’ll document, since these are friendly visits.
[ca]Have you read Rosso’s paper about the SPYDR program they do at BMS? I thought it was a very interesting approach that could be adapted to the academic environment.
[cd]What I particularly like about the feel of this approach is that they are having management intentionally visit labs in order to ASK THE RESEARCHERS what they feel like the problems are. This speaks to me because, as a graduate student, I was frustrated with EHS inspections in which they were focused on their checklist and minor infractions that didn’t matter while they walked right past really problematic things that were not on the checklist – and I would’ve much rather been encouraged to discuss those issues!
[ce]@Jessica Great point about inspectors being too ‘tunnel visioned’ on their compliance checklist and not able to be truly receptive to bigger issues, whether observed or vocalized during (collaborative) discussion with the research group members.
[cf]Is this a supervisor of the lab or to the lab?
[cg]There was a PhD dissertation at “Eastern U” that described how this was negotiated and the impact of those negotiations on the design of the computerized database that was used to implement the system. It’s a fascinating story to read.
[ch]Are you able to quickly find a link to share here?
[cj]This seems very strange to me. Was any additional information provided about the substantive changes that were made that could’ve potentially justified this type of response?
[ck]In working with the EPA, an agreement we were working on was almost scuttled by too many commas in a key sentence. It took 6 months to resolve it because sets of lawyers were convinced that those commas changed the meeting entirely. I couldn’t see the difference myself
[cl]The way through this was for the “clients” (techmical people from the school and the EPA) to get together without the lawyers in the room and come to a mutual understanding and then tell the lawyers to knock it off
[cm]Hardly fair to hold PIs accountable but give the university a pass on providing a safe work place. Although since this is outside the “academic freedom” morass it should be easier to address
[cn]Or are expensive and inappropriate for the PI to do.
[co]I have some of the same problems with facilities
[cp]I am disappointed that this is not a bigger part of this paper. Faculty are often characterized as “not caring” when I think the situation is much more complex than that. As a graduate student trying to get problems fixed, I can certainly attest to how difficult this is – even to know who to go to, who is supposed to be paying for it, who is supposed to be doing the work – and while I am chasing all of that, I am not getting my research done. It can be atrocious to try to get responsiveness within the system – and I can see why it would be viewed as pointless to chase by researchers at least at some institutions.
[cq]As an EHS staff member I can see a cultural rift between the groups. Comes down to good leadership at the top which is in short supply. Faculty and staff all work for the same university…
[cr]@Jessica I agree that getting resolution on infrastructure issues as a graduate student can be a huge time sink and at times even ineffective. That’s where having an ally/collaborator from the professional staff or EHS groups can be invaluable. They often know the structure and can help guide said efforts.
[cs]I would be interested in what percentage of the faculty had this attitude. In my experience, it represents about 20% of an institutional faculty population; 20% of the faculty are proactive in seeking EHS help; and the remaining 60% are willing to go with the departmental flow with regards to safety culture.
[ct]” Faculty and staff all work for the same university…” and work on the same mission, although in very different ways.
Another challenge is that many faculty don’t have a lot of identification with their host institution and often perceinve they need to change their schools in order to improve their lab’s resources or their personal standing in the hierachy
[cu]And if we don’t have experts in actual scientific application looking at the problems or identifying problems then the system is broken. A lab can look “clean and safe” but be filled with hazards due to processes. I believe a two tier audit system needs to be in place: First tier compliance Second tier: Safety in lab processes
[cv]YES! I have often been frustrated when having discussions in the “safety sphere” on these issues. By coming at it from the “processes” perspective, the compliance rules make a lot more sense.
[cw]Reliance on point-in-time inspections can be misleading. My group (EHS) does this for all labs across campus. It is a good start- ensures the lab space is basically safe. But what is missed is what happens when people work in the lab (processes). In a past life, different industry, I worked with a group to develop best practices for oil spill response. If response organizations subscribed to the practices they had guidelines on how to implement response strategies. Not super prescriptive, but set some good guardrails. Might be useful here?
[cx]Experts in process safety are often soaked up by larger industries with much more predictable processes. The common sense questions they ask (what chemicals do you use?, who will be doing the work?) are met with blank stares in academia
[cy]I think this is a profound observation which leads to the success or failure of this kind of approach.
[cz]…this is also foreshadowing for some of her other papers on this case study :).
The Joint Safety Team (JST) was an initiative started by students from the Departments of Chemistry (CHEM) and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS) with the aim of proliferating a culture of laboratory safety from a bottom-up approach via four main areas: compliance, awareness, resources, and education. The idea of the JST germinated from discussions between both departments, in addition to the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (DEHS) at the University of Minnesota with guidance from the Dow Chemical Company in 2012. The departments sought to embrace safety standards prevalent in industry while establishing a culture of safe practices in academic laboratories. Additionally, the JST team was expected to supplement the efforts of the faculty-led safety committees of the two departments to ensure compliance of laboratory practices with government regulations.
Since its initiation in 2012, the JST has taken great strides to be recognized as a leader in student-led safety. The safety endeavor has been well supported by the two departments which have enabled the JST to think of short and long-term safety goals. In 2015, as the initial members who had visited Dow were graduating, both department heads agreed to an ongoing investment in the organization to encourage committee participation and address some concerns from principal investigators about student time being taken away from research[a][b][c][d][e].[f][g][h][i][j][k]¨C11C¨C12C¨C13C¨C14C¨C15C The funding was utilized to provide stipends to JST committee members to ensure prolonged participation in the organization¨C16C¨C17C¨C18C. Furthermore, additional funding from the Dow Chemical Company and the Valspar Corporation (now Sherwin-Williams) was acquired in late 2015, which bolstered JST activities. The financial support from the departments and industrial partners has been critical for the ongoing success of the organization.
The current pyramid structure of the JST (Figure 1) is based on a strong foundation of volunteers[t][u][v][w][x][y] and laboratory safety officers (LSOs) who are responsible for daily implementation of safety practices in their respective research groups. Graduate students and postdoctoral associates assume the role of LSOs of individual laboratories by expressing their interest to the principal investigator of the research group and are assigned by the latter. Typically, laboratories involve two LSOs, a junior (first or second year student) and a senior (student in at least their third year or a postdoctoral associate) member of the group to enable efficient information transfer.
The Administrative Committee (AdCom) was formed as a part of the initial JST and included seven members in 2012. Presently, it is led by the president of the JST and includes the chairs of three subcommittees (E&R, A&C, PR), a Finance Oﬃcer, a Technology Oﬃcer, and representatives from the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (DEHS) at the University of Minnesota. After a collaboration with the Valspar Corporation (now Sherwin-Williams) was established in 2014, monthly AdCom meetings also included a representative from the company. The frequency of the meetings was chosen to ensure that the time committed by graduate students and postdoctoral associates to JST activities was limited and their primary focus lay in research. The member of the DEHS provides expert advice on policy and regulation issues regarding safety while the Sherwin-Williams representatives contribute industrial level expectations to strive toward. [z][aa][ab][ac][ad][ae][af][ag][ah][ai][aj]¨C36C¨C37C¨C38C¨C39C¨C40C¨C41C¨C42C¨C43C¨C44C¨C45C
The AdCom meetings create accountability for ensuring smooth functioning of the subcommittees and aim to provide vision and ideas for future events and activities. The members of the AdCom Committee identify departmental safety weaknesses that need to be addressed in the CEMS and CHEM departments. The president sets and enforces the agenda of all AdCom meetings and is responsible for ﬁlling the open positions in the subcommittees.
The JST website (www. jst.umn.edu) has been instrumental in communicating safety in the two departments, in addition to being the face of the organization as perceived by other research departments. The Technology Oﬃcer, in conjunction with the President, is responsible for website maintenance. The website contains access to the LSO guidebook via a university email address, which includes documentation for LSO training, roles and responsibilities, and transitioning between LSOs in a research group. It also includes “safety moments”, which are publicly available slides discussing speciﬁc aspects for widespread use among all researchers. Academic presentations in the CEMS and CHEM departments are preceded by a safety moment to instill a “safety ﬁrst” attitude across students, postdoctoral associates, and faculty. The website also gives access to the Learning Experience Reports (LER) system. A sister manuscript details how LERs have contributed to improving academic safety in the two departments
The Finance Oﬃcer manages the JST expenses and projected budgets including printing and safety awards and also ensures enough funds are present. Additionally, the oﬃcer is also responsible for preparing the annual budget describing all expenses incurred, which helps the JST obtain future funding. The oﬃcer also contributes to AdCom discussions that are aimed at determining the ﬁnancial feasibility of JST events and prizes. The expenses of the JST have varied through the years around a mean of $1500.[au][av][aw][ax][ay][az][ba][bb][bc][bd]
The Education and Resources Committee: The Education and Resources (E&R) committee oversees the organization of safety events for the LSOs of the CEMS and CHEM departments. The events are held every other month during the academic year and culminate into a grand annual safety event in August, open to all members of both departments[be][bf][bg][bh] (staﬀ, graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and professors). The committee members (one chair, four paid members, and an unlimited number of volunteers) determine the topics of each event and are responsible for the content and the subsequent organization of the events. The E&R committee has evolved from its initial role of solely providing safety information to that of organizing events that train researchers in several practical aspects of safety. The ﬁrst academic meeting held in October typically covers the roles and responsibilities of LSOs as the meeting coincides with the most frequent LSO transition period.
Topics covered at the other meetings change every time and have included round-table discussions and other interactive activities to engage and maintain the interest of the attendees. Often, we ask the participation of professors either for speciﬁc training or for sharing their approach to safety (e.g., evolution of safety over the years since the 1950s by an Emeritus Professor https:// youtu.be/HwXQPdhToec). Additionally, the E&R committee manages and updates the Laboratory Safety Oﬃcers’ guidebook. This document explains the roles and responsibilities of the LSOs in their laboratories and contains hyperlinks in order to eﬀectively provide the LSOs with all the resources necessary to support them in their function. Feedback[bi][bj][bk][bl] from participants is constantly sought to gauge the interest generated by a speciﬁc safety training and its format as well as to determine safety topics of interest ensuring true peer contributions. We found that interactive and entertaining activities help deliver safety messages eﬃciently.
Analysis and Compliance: The Analysis and Compliance (A&C) committee is devoted to preparing methodologies which promote safe behaviors and work environment in individual laboratories. he A&C committee coordinates the biannual peer-to-peer safety walkthroughs of the 53 experimental research laboratories[bm][bn] within the CEMS and CHEM departments aimed at evaluating laboratory safety compliance. The committee also administers the departmental safety surveys to encourage dialogue involving safety within both departments. The safety walkthroughs are peer-to-peer safety inspections organized in October and April every year and conducted by the LSOs. For the fall walkthroughs, LSOs from three to four groups are randomly teamed up, whereas in the spring, teams are selected based on the hazard classiﬁcation. By randomizing the teams, the LSOs are better informed about hazards which they do not commonly encounter. Consequently, they engage in safety discussions and learn how speciﬁc hazards are dealt with (e.g., radiation, large scale reactions, high pressure reactors, biological hazards). The reports are then shared with the respective principal investigators and discussed with researchers within individual research groups. Deﬁciencies are expected to be addressed before the next walkthrough. Even though these walkthroughs[bo][bp][bq][br][bs][bt] do not obligate any safety improvements, we have found that comments and suggestions are generally followed, and overall safety improvement has been observed and noted in the laboratories compared to previous walkthrough assessments. A comparison of the safety areas which “need attention” between 2012 and 2019 show that the number of laboratories showing inadequate levels of safety has drastically reduced (Figure 6).
The A&C committee also conducts anonymous departmental safety surveys every semester including staﬀ and faculty of both departments. The goal of these surveys is to obtain feedback about the general safety climate, speciﬁc aspects of laboratory safety, general suggestions, and for people to raise any other safety concerns. The results of the surveys are summarized and discussed with department heads for further discussion among the departmental faculty-led safety committees. For example, teaching assistants in the CHEM department had raised concerns about lack of adequate training for medical emergencies in a teaching laboratory setting. As a result, a step-by-step procedure highlighting the decisions to make and explaining the steps to take in the case of an emergency has been established and given to teaching assistants. [bu][bv]
Public Relations: The Public Relations (PR) committee was formed in 2013 as an addition to the E&R and A&C committees of the JST. Conforming with the informal JST motto of “making safety cool”, the PR committee functions as a medium of communication to establish safety as a common topic of research conversation. In addition to maintaining an active social media presence on Twitter (@UMNJST), the PR committee has utilized a variety of innovative means to inculcate safety into researchers. In 2016, the PR committee started publishing “stall wall moments”, which are letter-sized safety posters installed in the restrooms of both departments. A repository of all publications from the PR committee can be easily accessed through the JST website. The PR committee has also installed large (3 feet × 2 feet) safety posters across building hallways, stairwells, and common areas describing general safety procedures such as hazard pictograms, glove choices, data management, and building emergency evacuation plans. The committee strives to promote colloquial safety-related readings to encourage daily communication to further strengthen the safety culture. Surveys have consistently shown that “stall wall moments” and posters are eﬃcient means of communication which convey available safety resources and provide commentary on relevant safety incidents to the student body on a daily basis. The PR committee has allowed the JST to become the visible face of safety in the two departments making it easier for all researchers to approach safety, not with apprehension, but with an inherent curiosity to learn and implement self- and community-wide safety improvements
Promotion of the Safety Culture[bw][bx][by]: Academic safety is known to lag behind industrial expectations due to the lack of dedicated resources and enforcement as well as a deﬁciency of a strong safety culture. The JST periodically organizes industrial visits to the DOW campus in Midland, MI and the Valspar Corporation (now Sherwin-Williams) corporation in Minneapolis, MN. The visits bolster the attitudes of the visiting students about safety and provide them with opportunities to gain insights into developing new safety protocols at their home laboratory. Furthermore, this JST peer-to-peer model has inspired departments at other universities to set up analogous organizations to promote safety through a similar model.
Although the JST is a well-established organization in 2020, several challenges inherent to academia remain unaddressed. The high turnover of laboratory members makes it diﬃcult to perpetuate the safety culture and good safety practices. Enhancing participation from LSOs and non-LSOs in safety meetings also proves to be a diﬃcult task. [ch][ci][cj][ck]The JST continuously works toward the development of innovative means to make “safety cool” and hence sustain the safety culture. The “inform and reform” model, i.e., the “Minnesota model” has been well supported by the feedback mechanisms to improve the information that is conveyed to researchers as well as ensure constant improvement in safety standards in the CEMS and CHEM departments. The feedback mechanism itself presents a new set of challenges including excess or lack of speciﬁcity of the questions[cl][cm][cn][co][cp][cq] and encouraging thoughtful feedback from researchers in addition to evaluation[cr]¨C96C¨C97C¨C98C¨C99C¨C100C¨C101C¨C102C of the JST activities provided solely based on a point scale¨C103C¨C104C.
[a]This work will hopefully be considered an added value to a person’s research education.
And again this is another area where I feel that funding mechanism influences the degree of latitude afforded to graduate students in relation to their time allocation. Ones being supported off the research grant are often given less leniency for time spent not solely in pursuit of the grant deliverables.
[d]Agreed. Where you put the money is what gets the attention. Either (a) grant funders need to make safety education part of the grant or (b) the uni admin needs to step up and fund these efforts as part of functioning in the uni.
[e]Absolutely. The fact that we can allocate stipends for volunteers signals to everyone that this taken seriously and being supported by the higher ups
[f]Did anyone feel these concerns were legitimate? i.e. did someone has evidence that time was actually taken from research? Or was this just a general statement?
[g]Safety should be part of the research work. Tilak
[h]@email@example.com. While I wasn’t there at the time, I know of professors who in recent times have been worried about their students participating in student organizations in general. I think this worry comes up when students are involved in one of the JST committee’s rather than when serving as LSOs
[i]Jen Heemstra makes the point that the faculty member’s commitment should be to the student’s professional development, not the amount of lab time the students put in. JST committee work is an important professional asset when it teaches administrative skills (leadership, budgeting, communication)
[j]I know of advisors who don’t support their students taking up leadership positions outside of the lab. I am not surprised some of the faculty members started complaining about the time their students spend out of the lab.
[k]Agree with Monica. This varies quite widely. In terms of Ralph’s comment, it does come back to questions around the purpose of the institution: As a PI, are you primarily there to deliver students or primarily there to deliver data?
[l]I think many would default to the later response, as it influences future funding.
[m]I think that is the sad reality. Grad school on paper is about getting a degree and growing as an individual, but not every PI sees it that way
[n]I think it depends on how broadly you are considering the picture. This is constantly talked about in organizational literature. If you focus on product, you will make money in the short-term. If you focus on supporting your employees, you will typically make more money in the long-term. Better environment = more productivity if you are looking at the long game.
[o]The ACS did a study in 2014 of graduate education that is very interesting to read in light of this issue. The study was led by corporate science leaders and voted strongly for broader education rather than data-oriented training
[p]That is really interesting Ralph. Do you have a link to that study?
[q]What is the value of these stipends? For example, do the members do the JST activities INSTEAD OF teaching? Or are they additional supplements to standard funding mechanisms?
[r]Also, is there a means of judging whether or not paid JST members have “earned their pay” so to speak?
[s]The stipends are $200 per semester, so they do not replace teaching. The committee chair keeps track of attendance to committee meetings, of which there are usually five each semester. The member loses $40 for every meeting missed
[t]Are these solely researchers, or have there been other univ admin staff joining too?
[u]They have been solely researchers. We have tried to ensure that we stay student led so far. We do have a DEHS personal and department staff who support us, but at the end of the day the team is researcher led
[v]We have found that participation of and leadership from more permanent staff is quite useful.
[w]While it is important to have more permanent members stay up-to-date and interested in the LSTs, the thing that sets the LSTs apart from other types of committees is that it is graduate student and postdoc led. This has been incredibly important in order to encourage honest conversation and evaluation from those on the frontline in these labs.
[x]I agree with Anthony in that I’ve found substantial value in engagement and involvement with more permanent staff.
I’m not recommending a change in structure from a leadership and organizational perspective. But I do feel that having engagement and participation from career staff is value-added and can serve in areas of continuity and knowledge transfer.
[y]Our old DEHS staff representative was very essential to our success as well, and we felt a big hit when she left the university. Having that reperseenitve be present at our meetings and advocate for us was extremely helpful. The most important distinction is that they serve in a supportive role, but the organization as a whole is still researcher led
[z]Who does this representative tend to be? A scientist? Administrative staff person?
[aa]It is a DEHS administrative stuff. They usually have some background in science however
[ab]Additionally, do you have any sense what is “in it” for the company to be this involved? I have found that we struggle to get much traction in building relationships with local companies – beyond giving us tours of the facility (which is usually thought of as a recruitment opportunity to them so is typically run through HR).
[ac]I think it is more or less PR for them too. They employ a lot of grad students, so it does help them to have their future employees trained in proper safety practices
[ad]I suppose it may depend on how heavily they anticipate recruiting for 1 particular program at 1 particular school…?
[ae]Yeah they are very involved in the two department where we operate. They have recruitment events and even collaborations with some of our faculty
[af]At Cornell, I was able to arrange a safety-oriented tour of Corning labs for chem engineering students. They were disappointed that they didn’t get to hear about cutting edge research (aka trade secrets) as well as working expectations…
[ag]Well – if they thought they were going to hear trade secrets, they may need a bit more education on how companies run :). I have been on tours in which they were essentially led by HR & we didn’t get to see anything cool which were terrible. I have been on other tours that have involved researchers and we got to actually go around the facility and discuss details of the work. If our questions go to something proprietary, they would say essentially, “can’t answer that – but here’s what I can say.” Those were extremely valuable tours in terms of thinking about how companies operate and what possibilities existed for career options for researchers.
[ah]I have found that it takes an entirely different vocabulary to say what you are interested in doing in academia versus what you are interested in doing in industry.
[ai]Yes, the grad students were disappointed that they were being educated about safety vocabulary rather than technical fields where their strengths already were. With this in mind, I could have done a better job in setting expectations for the visit.
[aj]The unhappy response was “well, I missed a day in the lab for this”
[ak]I have found that our lab tours attract far more international students than domestic students. Everyone has expressed appreciation for the tours and the ability to connect – I definitely do realize that the students are going on the tours to make connections in companies (not for the love of learning about safety), however, I also think it is good that the two (safety + employability) are being shown together and necessarily connected to each other.
[al]We usually organize tours to Sherwin Williams that along the same lines. It about highlighting the safety practices there and also a recruitment event for the the company. We have gotten mixed responses are well in the past
[am]Employability = meeting industrial level expectation = part of a person’s research education?
[an]I think in an ideal world it would be, but safely safety adherence gets often overlooked in academic settings
[ao]There are also quite a few PIs who do not think of it as their job to prepare their students for work in industry.
[ap]There are quite a few PIs who wouldn’t know what industry needs. My master’s adviser went on sabbatical year to an industrial position and came back 6 months early because he and the corporate world didn’t get along
[aq]Do we even have a “definable” idea of what industry is looking for? Safety is too broad for those academics who have never worked in industry.
[ar]While I think that it is a good idea to get a feel for the “definables”, I also think a lot of the problem is actually centered around the basics: wear your freakin’ PPE; don’t do stuff in the lab without telling other people what you will be doing.
[as]Yeah I think the main thing that we got from DOW and Sherwin Williams was to have researchers go with a safety oriented mindset, and being willing to adhere to safe practices outlined by the companies. That is why the core of what we advocate is the safety culture above everything else
[at]Personally, it was weird for me to go from undergrad where you are constantly watched to grad where you are NEVER watched. The companies I have worked with, there was an expectation that people were going to be around sort of keeping an eye on you, but it was also your job to be an adult and communicate with others. Personally, I found this REALLY GREAT because I learned so much more from the people around me.
[au]This seems like a very doable, yearly investment. Any idea on ROI?
[av]Are there any critical “donations” of space, resources, etc?
[aw]I am assuming that this amount does not include the stipends. 🙂
[ax]What do you mean with ROI? In terms of space, we have not needed any dedicated space so far. Any supplies that we have needed to keep we have kept in a box that one of the committee members keeps in one of their offices.
[ba]I would imagine that all of the press and attention UMN gets for this work is likely the ROI to be expected – and all of this attention resulting from a few thousand dollars is likely viewed as remarkably good ROI.
[bb]I agree with Jessica. I think the department is very happy with the exposure that we get and uses us a recruitment device. I also think the simple fact that people generally feel safer in their lab spaces is well worth it
[bc]Are these costs solely operational/administrative, and not reflective of any other incentive expenditures (e.g. monetary awards)?
[bd]The costs are split between posters, awards, and food. There is a figure in the paper that breaks these down in more detail
[be]Is space limited? If not, is there interest for participation from other departments/organized research units?
[bf]The space is not at all limited. We have currently started a new committee dedicated to outreach, and we plan to start inviting students from local PUIs
[bg]Excellent, I hope that others find value and choose to participate.
[bi]It would be interesting to see the list of topics covered where student interest was the greatest. Also, are these meetings mandatory or optional for students in these departments?
[bj]We do send out surveys after these events to gauge interest, but we do not get a lot of response. These events are mandatory for LSOs, but open to all researchers
[bk]While I know it doesn’t “feel” like data gathering, I have found it far more useful to have our JST members (and EHS staff) floating around during events eavesdropping on conversations and explicitly asking for people’s feedback rather than handing out surveys. Not only do we get more response, the responses are actually much more useful and informative – especially when I engage people who have been “voluntold” to be there but are clearly not enjoying it. You gotta be ready for the real criticism with that approach though :).
[bl]Yeah I try to do this during our events where we have group discussions. I participate as a researcher and not as the president of the JST, and I think that helps me gauge people’s attitudes a little bit. This was easier when everything was in person though
[bm]Is this lab spaces or lab groups? (i.e. my 1 lab group has 3 separate lab spaces that are all situated next to one another – the 3 spaces are inspected separately by EHS).
[bn]We do it by groups. The idea is that each group gets a review of how safe they are that they can discuss together afterwards
[bo]Is there is any checklist for the walkthrough, how do you gauge the safety improvements
[bp]Yes. We have a sample sheet in the SI. It is constantly being revised and each category has a detailed rubric. The A&C committee also analyze the results each year and reports that information to the heads of the two departments
[bq]Have these results been used to identify department-wide pain points or issues that are more appropriately addressed on a department level or university level – rather than just individual lab issues?
[br]We have identified issues on the department level that we have addressed or are currently addressing. One big issue in the past was cluttered which we did an event targeting in the past and did a good job of minimizing. We have also had issues come up with electronics and old waste, and so we have brought up those issues in our events. We are currently working on creating hazard specific walkthrough rubrics
[bu]It is really good to see that this produced an effective feedback loop.
[bv]Yes we are very lucky in that we have a lot of support from the departments, and that they are willing to listen to the issues that we bring up and try to address them
[bw]Have there been or are there plans to expand to other departments?
[bx]We are currently working in talks with the college of pharmacy to try to implement a safety team there. There are the closes to us in terms of research, but they have their own set of challenges such as being spread out all over campus
[by]This is an interesting example, in that pharmacy’s have product safety certification requirements as well as lab safety concerns. This might provide another angle to foster in that department
[bz]The ultimate purpose of a JST is to inculcate safety into the students as they progress in their careers. With about 8-9 years history in this project, is there any follow-up of graduates who are now a few years into their post-graduate career?
[cb]I don’t know a lot of the original organizers, but I do know of a few. One of the DEHS positions have been field with a previous member of the JST, and there is actually another DEHS position that I know a graduating member of the JST is seeking. I also know that several members ended up in different industries where they continue to advocate for safety in their new roles. Good point though, I will try to reach out to some of the past members though and compile a list of stories
[cc]This is a really good idea. While it is neat to see some of these folks become safety professionals, I think it would be really important to see some of them go into more traditional roles but have their JST experience influence how they act in that role.
[cd]Are the opportunities associated with JST involvement discussed with potential students? Or when recruiting new faculty?
[ce]I hope, and the reason I strongly support JSTs, that the next generation of PIs and lead scientists include safety in their science view. Measuring that will have a strong indication of the success of the JST endeavor.
[cf]@Ralp Stuart, One of our biggest recruitment tactics is to say that involvement in the JST looks great on a resume and allows you to network with safety professionals.
[cg]@Neal I completely agree. We have gotten to the point where the JST is embedded into the fabric of the two departments and taken for granted. Our biggest measure of success has been the surveys that we send out, and how people feel about the safety conditions of their work environments
[ci]More interactive activities such as safety demos was a big hit. We have also tried to do hazard specific panels as well as invite outside speakers. According to our rules we are supposed to penalize LSOs who do not attend, but we have not implemented that because we didn’t want to add another source of stress to our LSOs during a pandemic
[cj]I would think it wouldn’t make sense to have penalties for non-attendance – goes against the spirit of the whole thing! I recall Texas A&M’s team used “Safety Moments” to start meetings that were focused on a particular technique or piece of equipment – for example, they started with glovebox safety. After kicking off with the Safety Moment, they would open it up for everyone to share questions, ways they had dealt with different challenges, etc. I really liked this idea because it was more specific for people who had those particular challenges so I would think they would get more from it as opposed to always focusing on the safety stuff that all of us share.
[ck]That’s an interesting idea. We try to start our events with safety moments, and all of our departmental seminars also begin with safety moments, but we do not open the floor for discussion afterwards. In the past we have had specific topic events such as Schlenk lines, glove boxes, vacuum pumps, etc, and those we do get good attendance for
[cl]This is a core skill for professionals in general and safety professionals in particular to develop. It is not easy and is done by trial and error. So it is good to hear that this is being experienced at the grad student level
[cm]Yes we are constantly improving our skill level. The big issue is that a lot of the lessons that we learn get lost due to the high turnover rate that we hava
[cn]There are commercial half day and full professional development courses around these issues available that can be useful in the early stages of ones career. Perhaps the departments could support scholarships to them.
[co]That would be an awesome way to bolster the “value” of high participation in the JST as well.
[cp]That is a good idea. I think the department is not willing to pay any extra money right now due to budget cuts and COVID, but potentially when the pandemic is over we could pursue that route
[cq]There is also the possibility of seeking out what is already happening and then inviting/incentivizing your LSO folks to go. So many of the issues that come up for JSTs have to do with communication, handling difficult conversations, managing up, etc – and I certainly know there are other departments at UConn who do a much better job of creating these events than my department does. The events are typically open to all departments – although I have been at PLENTY of these types of events/trainings in which I am the sole Chem person (even though we are one of the largest departments on campus) and sometimes even the sole STEM person. If my Chair actually valued this type of training, even light encouragement from him could increase those numbers.
[cr]How did the recent incident impact the JST? Was there a sense of failure?
[cu]Yeah there was definitely a sense of failure as a result of that incident. One the biggest one was that it took a lot of time for anyone to communicate what happened with us, and so it was months after before we could say something to the LSOs about it, which angered a lot of people
[cv]What was the cause of this incident, can you briefly explain
[cw]The fact that this delay in communication angered a lot of people is in itself progress! Stuff happens in our department all the time that doesn’t get discussed or shared in an official capacity – and no one is angry about it because it is just so normalized for us to not be in that conversation.
[cx]The researcher ran a Fischer esterification with two new substrates on a 35g scale. They felt safe because they had runt he reaction with different substrates on a similar scale in the past. The reaction involved adding propargyl alcohol to a sulfuric acid mixture and heating to 70C. after 30 minutes the reaction detonated. The researcher did not have a lab coat on and had several cuts and burns. Luckily there were other group members there who helped the researcher use the safety shower and then seek emergency help
[cy]I agree Jessica. It definitely is a step in the right direction. There is still room for improvement though!
[cz]Have you made any efforts to encourage feedback by a mechanism other than surveys?
[da]We have recently started doing a semesterly LSO forum. This in an event where all LSOs are invited to come together and share any issues that they are encountering
On WEDNESDAY, March 24 the CHAS Art and State of Safety Journal Club discussed the paper “Anaphylaxis induced by peptide coupling agents: Lessons learned from repeated exposure to HATU, HBTU, and HCTU.” 1st author Kate McKnelly led this discussion on this paper.The full paper can be found at this link: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.joc.9b03280. Comments on the table read are found below.
INTRODUCTION After working for years with peptide coupling agents HATU, HBTU, and HCTU[a][b],[c][d] a twenty-seven-year old female researcher (K.J.M.) developed life-threatening anaphylaxis. She began working with the aforementioned peptide coupling agents in May 2015. During the next few years, she worked heavily with these uroniumpeptide coupling agents. In March 2016, she began developing allergy symptoms of sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose. During the next couple of years, her symptoms progressed[e] to the point of anaphylaxis. These coupling agents are especially insidious because a severe allergy developed slowly over the course of three and a half years of exposure to the point of a life-threatening incident.
About one and a half years after beginning to work with these coupling agents, she noticed she had allergy symptoms when she weighed out coupling agents and Fmoc-protected amino acids for use in solid-phase peptide synthesis. In July[f][g] 2018, she began suspecting she was becoming allergic to coupling agents because she experienced sneezing and a runny nose immediately after spilling HCTU onto her glove. It was not until September 2018 that she experienced her first brush with allergy-induced anaphylaxis. She was at the weekly research group meeting in a seminar room down the corridor from the laboratory, and she began wheezing slightly. The wheezing was fleeting and went away after the group meeting when she left the building. A couple of weeks later, she started wheezing as she drove two labmates home. This time, the wheezing was louder—her labmates could also hear it—so she took the antihistamine diphenhydramine (generic Benadryl) to stop the reaction. Within 20 min, she could no longer hear wheezing.
Finally, in late October 2018, the researcher sat down at her desk in the lab and almost immediately began coughing, sneezing, feeling tightness in her throat, and subsequently wheezing. She attempted to remove herself from whatever she was exposed to in the lab and moved down the hallway to an office outside the lab. Once there, she continued reacting, and the wheezing progressed until she could hear a rattling wheezing sound when breathing through her nose. She immediately left the lab to obtain diphenhydramine. As[h] she exited the building, her symptoms stopped progressing. An hour after taking diphenhydramine, the wheezing subsided completely. In hindsight,[i][j][k] she should have called 911 for emergency medical help, because a throat-closing anaphylactic reaction can occur quickly, sometimes so quickly that there is barely enough time to avoid fatality.
How did this happen? How could this have been prevented?[l][m][n][o][p][q][r] We have been tackling these questions since the incident occurred. We provide this case study as a cautionary note about the potential hazards from chemical exposure that can develop over time and sneak up on a researcher. We first sought to determine what caused this anaphylactic reaction to occur. We then adjusted how peptide coupling agents were handled in the lab to minimize exposure and attempt to prevent other researchers from becoming sensitized as well. In sharing our experience here, we hope to contribute to the widespread implementation of standard operating procedures for peptide coupling agents and protect others who work with them.
We first scoured the literature for information on sensitization by peptide coupling agents HATU, HBTU, and HCTU and Fmoc-protected amino acids. Information regarding sensitization varied among chemical supplier material safety data sheets (MSDSs). HATU is reported to cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and is denoted by an exclamation mark hazard symbol. HBTU is reported to cause respiratory sensitization. HCTU is not reported to have known toxic effects. [s][t][u][v][w][x][y]We found only nine published cases of sensitization by the uronium coupling agents HATU and HBTU and none by HCTU or by Fmoc-protected amino acids. The first reported case implicating uronium coupling agents as chemical sensitizers came in 2003. Yung et al. described a researcher at a university that first developed eye irritation, a runny nose, and coughing (rhinitis) after weighing HBTU. Her symptoms progressed over the course of 2 weeks, developing into chest tightness, a cough, and skin rashes (urticaria) and culminating in sore, red itchy eyes, coughing, sneezing, and urticaria within 1 h of being in the laboratory. The researcher was tested with skin prick tests for allergies to HATU, HBTU, and HCTU because all chemicals were present in the lab. She tested positive for sensitivity to HATU and HBTU but negative for HCTU and various Fmoc-protected amino acids[z][aa]. Because the researcher did not exhibit sensitivity to HCTU, the authors suggested that this uronium coupling agent may be a safer alternative for widespread use.Other publications report that HCTU is nontoxic and nonirritating.
The other published instances of chemical sensitization to uronium coupling agents have involved HBTU exclusively. In 2003, another researcher, this time in a pharmaceutical plant, developed occupational rhinitis and bronchial asthma from HBTU and TBTU, which is identical to HBTU except for the counterion. The allergies were confirmed by positive skin prick and nasal challenge tests.In 2005, Bousquet et al. reported a chemistry researcher who developed allergic rhinitis and dermatitis on the hands and fingers which then progressed over the course of a year to include his face, upper back, neck, elbows, and ankles. The authors confirmed the researchers’ sensitivity to HBTU through patch testing and found he was not allergic to dimethylformamide, dichloromethane, acetonitrile, triisopropylsilane, HATU, or BOP. From 2006 to 2010, six more instances of chemical sensitization from HBTU were reported with similar respiratory and skin reactions.One example, in 2006, involved a university researcher developing an anaphylactic response to HBTU over the course of three years, similar to the case reported in this paper. All of these examples were published in allergy and other medical journals, which are not generally read by researchers who use peptide coupling agents.[ab][ac][ad][ae][af][ag]
We suspected that peptide coupling agents caused K.J.M.’s allergic reactions. An allergist and clinical immunologist (W.S.) tested the researcher for allergies to a panel of over 60 allergens by skin prick tests to determine if common environmental allergens accounted for her anaphylaxis. She was only slightly allergic to two environmental allergens, but not so allergic that they would cause anaphylaxis. Skin prick tests were then performed to determine if she was allergic to HATU, HBTU, HCTU, DCC, Fmoc-leucine–OH, Fmoc-phenylalanine–OH, and Fmoc-asparagine(Trt)–OH. The researcher worked with most of the canonical amino acids in their Fmoc-protected forms, so three were chosen as representative amino acids. DCC was included as a control because it is a notorious sensitizer that the researcher had never previously worked with.
As hypothesized, the researcher had severe positive allergic reactions to uronium peptide coupling agents but only mild responses to Fmoc-protected amino acids. The coupling agents HATU, HBTU, and HCTU all caused the formation of large hives, comparable in size to those formed by the histamine positive control. DCC did not cause any reaction, which is not surprising as the researcher was never previously exposed to DCC. Fmoc-leucine–OH, Fmoc-phenylalanine–OH, and Fmoc-asparagine(Trt)–OH all elicited minor reactions and produced hives much smaller in size than the histamine positive control. The lack of a strong reaction to the Fmoc-protected amino acids is not surprising, as they are not known chemical sensitizers.
This paper serves as the first reported case of chemical sensitization resulting in anaphylaxis from three common uronium coupling agents: HATU, HBTU, and HCTU. The sensitized researcher (K.J.M.) can no longer work in her research lab.She cannot go into the building where the lab exists; the hallways, rooms, and common spaces all cause her to react, first with a runny nose and throat tightness and then with wheezing.[ah][ai][aj][ak][al][am] Her allergic response is so severe that she risks anaphylaxis whenever exposed to these coupling agents, and she now must carry an epinephrine autoinjector (generic EpiPen) as a safety precaution whenever she is near researchers actively working with peptide coupling agents. She has become sensitive to colleagues who have been in her research laboratory and must be careful to ask them to change their clothes and in some cases wash or cover their hair to prevent her exposure to the pervasive coupling agents. These events prompted the research group as a whole to re-evaluate how the group handles peptide coupling agents and to change their standard operating procedures to prevent group members from becoming sensitized to coupling agents.
Chemical sensitization causes an immune response in the form of reactions as mild as seasonal allergy symptoms, like rhinitis, and as severe as dermatitis and anaphylaxis. Many[an][ao][ap][aq][ar] chemical sensitizers are chemicals that can modify human proteins. All reactive compounds that can modify proteins should be treated as potential sensitizers unless they are known with certainty to be safe. In spite of this hazard, most researchers do not treat compounds that can react with proteins with proper precautions. Peptide coupling agents are prime examples.
Peptide coupling agents induce the formation of an amide bond from the reaction of a carboxylic acid group with an amine group. The coupling agents react with the carboxylic acid and activate it for subsequent attack by a nucleophilic amine. After the amine reacts with the activated carboxylic acid, an amide bond forms. Human proteins display multiple carboxylic acid groups (e.g., glutamic acid and aspartic acid) and amine-containing groups (e.g., lysine) in the form of amino acid residues at protein surfaces. The reactivity of coupling agents toward amino acid residues primes them to cause sensitization by modifying proteins in the human body.
The carbodiimide coupling agent DCC (dicyclohexylcarbodiimide) is a notorious chemical sensitizer with a long history of causing sensitization. DCC was first reported as a peptide coupling agent by Sheehan and Hess in 1955. It quickly grew in popularity due to the ease with which it induced the formation of peptide bonds. Soon after its introduction, a publication reported that DCC caused three cases of allergy-induced skin rashes (contact dermatitis) in 1959. Zschunke and Folesky subsequently reported seven cases of DCC-induced contact dermatitis in a pharmaceutical plant in 1975. In 1979, two independent cases of DCC sensitivities were published in the journal Contact Dermatitis. In one case, a lab worker developed a blistering eruption rash on his hands and forearms, and in the second case, a research chemist developed a rash over nearly his entire body that persisted for five days before he was hospitalized.Since 1979, 11 more cases were reported of DCC causing similar skin contact allergic reactions. In one of these cases, the researcher also developed sensitivity to diisopropylcarbodiimide (DIC) and suffered a vesiculopapular rash on his cheeks and the backs of his hands from both DCC and DIC. The authors of each of these reported cases confirmed sensitization with skin patch tests.
The many reports of DCC sensitization lead to toxicology testing to confirm the hazard it poses to human health. DCC and DIC were nominated for testing by the National Toxicology Program in 1993. Hayes et al. then tested DCC and DIC on the skin of mice for their potential as sensitizers and in 1998 reported sensitization at concentrations as low as 0.006% (w/v) for DCC and 0.3% (w/v) for DIC. Another report in 2002 confirmed DCC and DIC as sensitizers to mice when examining the mechanism of DCC- and DIC-induced chemical sensitization. In 2011,[as][at][au] Surh et al. further characterized DCC and DIC for toxicity and carcinogenicity and determined that both DCC and DIC caused skin sensitivity in rats and mice, but only DCC exhibited carcinogenicity. The detrimental health effects of the peptide coupling agents DCC and DIC are worrisome for anyone who handles them.
HATU, HBTU, and HCTU were developed between the late 1970s and the early 2000s and are now widely used as coupling agents in peptide synthesis. Despite being implicated as sensitizers in at least ten reported cases, including the current one, they have not been rigorously tested for their immunogenic and toxicological properties.
LABORATORY ACTION PLAN
In response to the sensitization of K.J.M., we developed standard operating procedures to handle HATU, HBTU, and HCTU more safely. We found guidelines for handling sensitizers, which recommended never opening sensitizers outside of a fume hood and minimizing exposure if handling them outside of a fume hood. Our lab dedicated a portion of a fume hood to weighing out coupling agents and amino acids and placed a balance in the hood[av].[aw][ax][ay] A waste container was placed in this fume hood as a receptacle for weighing paper and other materials contaminated by coupling agents or Fmoc-protected amino acids. Coupling agents and amino acids are transferred into sealable containers before removal to individual researchers’ fume hoods. As with other standard operating procedures for handling hazardous chemicals, personal protective equipment (PPE) in the form of a lab coat, eye protection, and disposable gloves [az][ba][bb][bc][bd]should be worn at all times when handling coupling agents. We anticipate that these procedures will reduce the risk of other researchers becoming sensitized in the future.[be][bf][bg][bh][bi][bj][bk][bl][bm][bn][bo]
Any research lab that performs peptide synthesis should take extra precautions to avoid exposing researchers to coupling agents. The Supporting Information provides a standard operating procedure to handle peptide coupling agents more safely in the research laboratory by minimizing exposure[bp].
Peptide coupling agents, regardless of whether they are carbodiimide reagents, uronium reagents, phosphonium reagents, etc., all perform the same chemical function of facilitating amide bond formation and therefore can all covalently modify human proteins. If a chemical can modify human proteins, it is a prime candidate as an immune sensitizer, even if it is not a known sensitizer. We hope that our laboratory’s experience of the hazards of HATU, HBTU, and HCTU will serve as a cautionary note to those working with any peptide coupling agents.
[a]I see that PF6- is frequently the counter ion. Was this tested as an allergen?
[b]In second paragraph of the literature search part they mention a researcher who became sensitized to both HBRU and TBTU, which has a different counter ions, so while it sounds like the counter ion wasn’t tested for specifically, it doesn’t seem to be the culprit here. This makes sense since the counter ions do not partake in the coupling reaction and only has a slight influence on coupling efficiency
[c]What is the best practices to handle these coupling agents? Tilak
[d]This is discussed towards the end – also if you are interested in the protocol they shared, that is in the SI if you follow the link to the paper.
[e]Why it is important to pay special attention to unusual symptoms.
[g]Reporting symptoms early is also important for legal (i.e. Workers Comp) reasons
[h]Another scenario I have seen a lab worker suffer was a techinician in a electron microscopy lab. She accidently brushed her hand against a container of an epoxy they used to set up samples for the microscope and didn’t think anything of it. The next day when she can to work, her fingers started itching and keep getting worse for a week. She eventually had to leave that job.
The difference from this report is that it was a single exposure that led to the sensitization rather than repeated exposure over time.
[i]Why it is important to keep an eye on our colleagues as well and ask questions. As wild as this sounds, it is so easy for us to dismiss our own symptoms as minor even if we would be incredibly concerned about those same symptoms if we observed them in another person!
[j]A lab tech reported to me a situation in which she and a colleague were transferring insect samples between killing jars which contained 70% ethanol in the open lab. After about half an hour, she noticed that her partner was getting goofy. She then realized that they were both getting drunk from breathing the ethanol that was evaporating as they did the transfers. It’s not likely that she would have noticed this without seeing that her partner was being affected.
[k]Really good point. Also, would she have noticed her own symptoms if she had been working alone? Could’ve just interpreted this as tiredness.
[l]Would a system where researchers can report any symptoms as soon as they occur would have prevented it from getting worse?
[m]I suppose it depends on whether or not people use the system, how easy it is to use, who they are reporting to – as well as how seriously the person themselves takes their own symptoms.
[n]There are many places the someone can be exposed to allergens and the pattern they describe in the paper is more evident in retrospect than as it occurs. Animal care workers have prospective monitoring for allergies to the mice, etc. they work with, but that doesn’t prevent many from having to retire from this profession due to allergies acquired over time
[o]When I was working at the USDA, I learned of multiple people who developed allergies to moth scales over time due to a protocol in regular use that essentially required them to gently suck moths into the tip of a tube in order to move them. Gross to think about now (I never did this), but it was standard practice for a long time and many still do it this way.
[p]I have seen similar techniques outside of the chemistry lab setting. I haven’t had any lab person defend mouth-pipetting of chemicals to me since about 2005; perhaps it is a past practice, at least in academia? I’d like to think so.
[q]I knew people doing this when I was working there up through 2016!
[r]I’ve never actually seen anyone mouth pipette chemicals, so I believe the campaign against that has been a bit more effective.
[s]So “looking up the SDS” provided no information in this case.
[t]GHS SDSs should include information about sensitization, but I suspect that a chemical supplier wouldn’t add that content to a SDS based on “anecdotal evidence”. I suspect that there would need to be a published peer review study before the information was added to a SDS.
[u]Well – that is my point. We are here working on the cutting edge, but official documentation like SDSs will be necessarily behind. I cringe every time a grad student tells me “well I just looked up the SDSs and carried on” w/o having talked to ANYONE ELSE about their projects.
[v]Toxicology studies will always lag behind the introduction of new reagents. Maybe it would help to have a recognition of what classes of chemicals could be potent sensitizers and apply the precautionary principle to those. Here’s an example: “First, a chemical with dermal sensitization potential has to be able to penetrate into the skin—meaning it must have a low molecular weight, usually less than one kilodalton—and induce or elicit an immune response by being chemically reactive and electrophilic with skin proteins.” (from: https://synergist.aiha.org/201911-dermal-sensitizers) I understand that the above is broad, but it’s a start. Peptide coupling agents certainly fit the bill.
[w]It is interesting that in most cases there was little allergic reaction to HCTU, but much more severe reactions to HATU and HBTU. I wonder if once one is sensitized to the latter there is an allergic reaction to HCTU? This was the case in this study.
[x]It is also so hard to know how many people experienced these symptoms and did not connect them to exposure to these agents – so they have effectively gone unreported.
[y]I think form a chemical standpoint that would make sense. HCTU is essentially HBTU with an added chlorine, so it’s not a stretch to believe that the immune system recognizes both of these reagents in the same manner
[z]Anyone doing work with coupling reactions for peptide. peptide-mimics ought to have training on sensitizers since most of these are amines which cause sensitization
[aa]Who determines this? When I sent this article to our chemical safety specialists, they were surprised to see it! As were the members of the 1 lab I know in our building that works with these.
[ab]Another frustration with “the literature.” Safety information about chemicals doesn’t seem to have a home – it is scattered throughout so many different places that it can be easily missed by the people who need to know the information. Case in point: This case study was published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry!
[ac]These should have been posted in C&EN. That was often done during that time period as a way to alert the general chemical community. Part of the other problem is that many biochemists don’t read ACS publications.
[ag]While it made the rounds at the time, there are plenty of undergrads and grads working in labs who aren’t reading C&EN. C&EN is a pretty specialized resource. When I was working in a molecular genetics lab, I hadn’t even heard of C&EN.
[ah]Is there that much of the sensitizer floating around the building? Why weren’t they working with this in the hood???
[ai]Hoods are not black holes. For example, when it comes to powders they can disrupt use of the material because of the air movement in the work area
[aj]We have seen similar reports in other settings. Usually anecdotal and not as clearly documented as this. Review the literature on “multiple chemical sensitivities”. I frequently have trouble with these reports as the claims seem very wild. However, we know that sub-picomol levels of agents such as we are discussing here can induce an allergic Rx in hyper-sensitive people.
[ak]Taysir shared a comment below on why these are difficult to work with in hoods.
[al]Agree with Ralph. The appropriate engineering control for working with or weighing powders are enclosures with HEPA filtration design for that purpose, not fume hoods.
[am]Like Neal, I remember the emergence of the idea of Multiple Chemical Sensitivies and how much this confused the EHS world. There was a weird mix of science and pseudo-science that we were required to react to in addressing situations both in the lab and outside it
[an]A question this paragraph raises for me as a trainer is whether I should call attention to the chemical properties of the material the way this article does or whether I should alert people to the symptoms that they should be alert to as warning signs. The OSHA lab standard suggests training peiople on “signs and symptoms” rather than focusing on chemcials
[ao]Would it be better to do both? If one knows the symptoms but not the agent, then there could a wide range of things that could lead to these symptoms, even some not in the lab. It seems like there really needs to be causality established.
[ap]I would also think that this would be considered when discussing the design of experiments and lab protocols. You don’t want to wait until someone is having symptoms to do something about it.
[aq]I feel like the safety aspects of the research carried out in the lab doesn’t get discussed enough , even in group meetings. It’s only after something terrible has happened. I’m wondering how this culture can be affected.
[ar]Monica – that is a fundamental point of the increased interest among grad students in safety. As they move on to their careers they will become the safety leaders.
[as]1955 to 2011 – it is pretty wild to see how long it can take for a regularly used chemical to be recognized for the harm it can cause. This is important to keep in mind as we work on the cutting edge of scientific experimentation!
[at]Part of the problem, again, may be in the communication forums used during that time. I wonder if some of the more common social media will make this easier now…
[au]I may not be following the correct social media, I don’t see a lot of lab procedure information there. Where would one look for these stories?
[av]The measures taken are pretty basic – and involve things that are now available in virtually ALL labs. This is another important consideration.
[aw]Is there a process for decontaminating the balance and hoods in place? Can the agents be deactivated by other chemicals?
[ax]I believe bleach will not work with these chemicals, may be cleaning by ethanol is the best solution
[bc]Yup, DEHS at my institution provides that testing
[bd]I suspect that the allergeric reactions could be triggered by skin exposure and other environmental contamination as much as respiratory exposure. The NP95 masks will help by avoiding cross contamination from your hands to your face, which may be helpful
[be]As a result of this paper, I convinced my group to buy a new balance to keep in the hood for weighing out HCTU and to follow the suggested protocol. The issue we ran into is that due to the hood flood it takes a very long time for the balance to tare. Since our peptide synthesizer is cartridge based we have to weigh the coupling reagent individually for each amino acid. As a result, it now takes days instead of hours to finish weighing all the amino acids. Many researchers in our lab have instead elected to wear N95 masks when weighing the coupling reagent instead of using the hood balance
[bf]That is interesting. We didn’t have any hoods in my lab with balances in them, but I have used them in other labs and had no issues with them taring. I’m wondering now what made the difference.
[bg]Probably due to our hoods being ancient to be honest. I am not happy about this solution, but I understand why people go for it
[bh]generally it is difficult to weigh powders inside the chemical fume hood due to air flow, however, crystalline material is ok
[bi]Housekeeping is very important to handle such chemicals in the lab
[bj]It also takes some time and practice to get used to working with powders and crystalline materials that I don’t think most students really get until they are working in a research lab. Working a hood does add to the complexity of this.
[bk]The lab I worked in in the 80’s had ventilation weighing station for working with silca and asbestos dusts. It takes a very careful ventilation design for sensitive balances to be able to operate in a wind current. We also had a special table which was very heavy to provide a steady surface for the balance.
[bl]A weighing enclosure will also work for this purpose
[bm]I agree with Jessica about the practice/ or hands-on on weighing
[bn]We just use a three side piece of acrylic around the scale and have no problems. As an alternative, you could teach people in the lab to weigh out chemicals using analytical subtractive techniques. This is the fastest method by far. (weigh out your vial, add some chemical to the vial in the hood, put the lid on and weigh again, add solvent to desired concentration)
[bo]Was working only with solutions considered? I.e., upon receipt of a new bottle of coupling agent, dissolve it in a solvent to a known concentration, then for each use, volumetrically measure what’s needed and then dilute? Wet methods are excellent for controlling exposures to dusts/particulate. Look at construction sites during large-scale demo…you usually see a big hose running to minimize dust.
[bp]We use a synthesizer often. All chemicals are weighed out and diluted in the hood. The sealed bottles are then transferred to the synthesizer. A tube is then use to carry any escaping vapors back to the fume hood.
Climate Survey Team representatives: Rebeca Fernandez (she/her/hers), Tesia Janicki (she/her/hers)
On March 10, 2021 the CHAS Journal continuing our discussion of the paper “Student-Led Climate Assessment Promotes a Healthier Graduate School Environment.” The original paper can be found at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00611 One of the authors, Rebeca Fernandez, led the discussion. Comments from the Table Read (that was led by Tesia Janicki) are also below.
03/03 Table Read for The Art & State of Safety Journal Club Excerpts from “Student-Led Climate Assessment Promotes a Healthier Graduate School Environment”
Recent reports have emerged that highlight a prevalence of mental health disorders among graduate students. These studies show that graduate students are disproportionately susceptible to mental health disorders when compared to the general population, due in part to unique challenges associated with the graduate school experience[a][b][c][d][e][f][g]. The majority of incoming students are recent college graduates in their early 20s, and their transition to graduate life is typically preceded by a relocation that separates them from their social networks and support systems[h][i][j][k]. Graduate programs that are able to assist students during the transition into their departments will benefit from a happier, healthier, and more productive group of young researchers. Although it is not universally recognized among faculty [l][m][n]that chemistry graduate programs need to adapt to better support the needs of graduate students, a few departments have initiated major institutional efforts to improve the research and educational climate in graduate school. Here, we define “climate” to encompass all aspects of the graduate student experience such as research practices, mentorship, social activities, work-life balance, and cultivation of a healthy lifestyle. Along with the general challenges associated with graduate school, each individual department has unique elements that influence its culture, such as size, demographics, geographic location, and whether the university is private or public. These differences notwithstanding, many challenges that graduate students experience appear to be universal[o][p]. The accurate evaluation of graduate program climate and student mental health has been hindered by the transient nature of the graduate student population[q][r], but encouragingly, graduate programs across the country have begun developing metrics to examine departmental climate and the graduate student experience. In 2014, the University of California, Berkeley administered a survey to assess the well-being of graduate students in all departments at the university. In 2018, Mousavi et al. demonstrated the successful implementation of a survey tailored to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota (UMN). At UMN, the development of a climate survey was initiated by faculty[s][t][u][v][w], with student involvement, and the survey results were used to guide institutional changes to improve graduate student culture. These results are further discussed alongside our Recommendations and Initiatives.
Survey Development The UW−Madison climate survey was developed by the Climate Survey Team (CST), a group composed of eight students from different research laboratories[x][y] and years in graduate school who provided unique perspectives on the graduate school experience. The chemistry department at UW− Madison represents one of the largest national programs and has non-uniform demographics throughout the department, i.e., among research groups, across subfields, and between years (the breakdown of department demographics versus survey respondents is provided in the Supporting Information). Given these variations, we sought input from fellow graduate students, faculty, staff, representatives from University Health Services (UHS), and select department alumni, including a human resources expert, throughout each step of the survey design process. [z][aa][ab][ac]
REPRESENTATIVE SURVEY FINDINGS[ad][ae]
Emotional Well-Being and Work-Life Balance
Graduate students and postdocs were asked what factors influenced their emotional well-being over the course of the previous year. It is clear from these data (Figure 2) that personal relationships, ranging from principle investigator (PI) involvement to peer interactions, have a significant impact on the emotional well-being of students. Notably, the advisor/PI was ranked highly as both a positive and negative influence, depending on the respondent, representing the outsized effect of PI−student interactions on the overall graduate school experience. [af][ag][ah][ai][aj][ak][al]Of the respondents who indicated that their relationship with their advisor/PI had a negative impact on their emotional well-being at least once per month (22%), 5% identified as male and 17% did not identify as male (details of how demographic responses were grouped can be found in the Supporting Information). From this data, it is clear that differences in PI−student relationships may be related to gender; however, we could not elucidate more specific causes from this survey. The significance of the PI−student relationship, regardless of gender, is further supported by a global PhD student survey in 2017 that reports, “good (PI) mentorship was the main factor driving (graduate student) satisfaction levels”.
Demographic correlations regarding perceived mentorship efficacy revealed some dependence on ethnicity. For example, 83% of those who identified as Caucasian experienced effective mentorship by senior graduate students/postdocs compared to only 58% of those who did not identify as Caucasian. Similarly, 90% of respondents who identified as Caucasian reported supportive interactions with their PI[am][an][ao], in contrast with 63% who do not identify as Caucasian. Variations in responses based on ethnicity reflect many factors, such as the diversity (or lack thereof) among the students and faculty members, which will vary across departments and over time. In response to trends revealed from demographic correlations and the negative experiences reported in Figure 3b, we recommend the installation of regular implicit bias training, mentorship,[ap][aq] and conflict resolution workshop[ar][as][at][au][av][aw]s.
Outside the scope of this survey, we and other departments are making a concerted effort to improve minority representation in chemistry[ax][ay][az], necessitating shifts in climate that respect and integrate a more diverse student pool. [ba][bb][bc][bd][be]These data serve as an important baseline from which to gauge the effect of new policies through future assessments. The climate survey administered by the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley echoes these sentiments and emphasizes the importance of creating a welcoming work environment for women and underrepresented minorities.
A cumulative 59% of graduate students and postdocs reported feeling depressed or sad (a symptom of depression) at least a few times per month compared with 37% of adults surveyed among a broader population (one-month time frame)[bp][bq][br][bs][bt][bu]. Additionally, high percentages of graduate students and postdocs reported exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, with 25% of students experiencing a panic or anxiety attack at least once per month. For comparison, a 2012 study reported that 31.2% of adults had some anxiety disorder, where 4.7% had a panic disorder, specifically.
The most shocking observation from our climate survey was that 9.1% of graduate students and postdocs reported experiencing thoughts that they would be better off dead or hurting themselves at least a few days a month. This alarming number is comparable with that reported for graduate students from other universities using similar methods. To address and attempt to mitigate the struggles of graduate students and postdocs, we recommend increasing access to and awareness of mental health resources through education and structured conversations.
If faculty are educated about the mental health resources available on campus, they are in a better position to direct their students to the appropriate resources if needed[bv][bw][bx][by][bz]. Most, if not all, graduate schools will have an on-campus mental health organization (at UW−Madison this is the UHS). Collaboration with professionals is essential to making mental health support for graduate students and postdocs accessible.
Our department now hosts biweekly “Office [ca][cb][cc]Hours” with a UHS professional providing drop-in confidential consultation sessions for graduate students and postdocs inside of the chemistry building, significantly lowering the barrier to seek support. We encourage graduate students at other institutes to connect with their on-campus health professionals and inquire about implementing a similar program[cd][ce][cf][cg].
RECOMMENDATIONS AND INITIATIVES BASED ON CLIMATE SURVEY RESULTS
Student buy-in for any climate discussions in the department is essential and faculty support is equally crucial to the success of implementing lasting change[ch][ci][cj][ck][cl][cm][cn][co]. Faculty acceptance of student participation in various activities (e.g., being a member of a student council) and engagement in conversations about mental health signals that students’ well-being is valued in addition to their research productivity.
With the coordinated efforts of students and faculty, department curricula can be updated to provide explicit and detailed program requirements for graduate students. We encourage graduate students in other programs to work with faculty and staff to design and carry out a plan to foster a healthy graduate school climate based on the specific needs of their departments[cp][cq]. Utilizing a survey such as ours provides a starting point to gather information that is critical to creating lasting change.
A list of the major initiatives, which have been implemented in the UW−Madison Department of Chemistry to address our own unique challenges, can be found below.
The advent of conversations surrounding graduate student struggles with stress, anxiety, and depression, which have provided a framework for both individuals and research groups to discuss related problems.
The organization of a regular department-wide town hall to discuss relevant issues.
An increase in the number of events focused on raising awareness about mental health disorders and resources available on campus.
Revision of graduate program policies[cr][cs][ct][cu][cv][cw][cx] to reduce stresses associated with the transition into a research group and subsequent graduation requirements.
An effort to develop an expectations document for independent research laboratories to mitigate stress surrounding graduation requirements.
A focus on providing leadership opportunities for graduate students and postdocs to further increase student involvement.
[a]Do we have any historical data to know if this is a change over either the short term or long term? [b]Can you elaborate? I’m not sure I understand your question [c]Related: Are we reporting differently just because we think about it differently? [d]Sounds like we need more surveys! [e]I wonder what the experience is in 2020 compared to 2010, compared to 1980 For example, when my father was in grad school in the 1970’s, my mother was typing his papes for him. I wonder if changes in the reasons and ways people go to grad school impacts their experience of the situation. [f]Ohhhh wow. I really don’t know! We have data from 2015 at the earliest. And we really can’t compare because we used very different questions in 2017 [g]This reminds me of an essay written in the 1970s I think (can’t remember author) in which a feminist explains how she would really like to have a wife since they do all of the thankless things to support the success of their spouse :). [h]Is this influenced by the demographics; i.e. are older grad students more likely to be international or vice versa? [i]Interesting, I don’t think we have this data at hand but my thought would be no. [j]Yes – I wondered about this assumption. I know that older students are coming back to school now (I’m one of them). There seem to be more people starting families while in grad school – so the idea that they are all singletons in their 20s doesn’t really seem to ring true anymore. [k]In 2019, we included questions on family status for correlations, but not age.
[l]Is this because they accepted certain negative aspects of their programs in the past w/o complaint or is it because something has fundamentally changed about the structure of graduate programs? [m]Also interested to know about the generational aspects of this (generational in terms of inherited structures, temporal changes, etc.) [n]I think that the fundamental structure of graduate programs needs to change. It is built to publish and conduct research for the PI not to support graduate students in their achievements. This is especially true for those who identify as BIPOC. From our experience trying to implement changes not every faculty member is interested in helping or volunteering their time [o]I presume this means universal across institutions rather than all individuals feel the same challenges [p]Yes, for example across most institutions you do not have to be trained to manage people to be a PI [q]To me, this seems to also be related to Jessica’s question above querying faculty’s resistance to adaptation and supporting new and/or old unaddressed needs, since the transient nature of the grad student population might only be a major source of hindrance to evaluation if the effort is taken up, pushed, and facilitated by graduate students [r]Yes exactly.
[s]What motivated these faculty to take on this project? [t]I believe this was one faculty member. I’m involved with the student group associated with the survey (they’ve repeated it since the initial survey) and the faculty advisor of the student group was also the director of graduate studies at the time and collaborated with psychiatrists from the health center on campus [u]You can read some more about it here (https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i32/Grappling-graduate-student-mental-health.html) [v]Thanks – I’ll take a look. Is this something that the JST has taken on – or is this a separate group? [w]A separate group. This is run through http://ccgs.chem.umn.edu/
[x]Were these all chemistry students? [y]Yes, spanning years 2-6 [z]Was there a focus group phase to test the questions before they were used in the survey? [aa]Yes. Our sample group included graduate students and postdocs, men and women, international and domestic. We also had some faculty and mental health advisors read the survey for their take. [ab]Thanks. In my experience, that is a very helpful step that not all climate surveys undertake [ac]It was especially important for us to ensure language was clear to those for whom English was not their first language. [ad]The transition from U/G to grad school introduces the student to going from being one of the academic leaders of the class to being a lesser star in a peer group of academic stars. Coping with that can be difficult. Is this addressed in this study? [ae]We did not address this specific phenomenon. Themes of imposter syndrome were pervasive in qualitative responses, however. [af]In personal conversations, I definitely see evidence for this. While a grad student joins a dept, it really feels more like they join a PI. Two students in the same department can have wildly different experiences depending on who their PI is. [ag]You can even at times see very different experiences within a group (e.g. the student that is fellowship funded vs. the student that requires support off the research grant). [ah]I have had this exact same experience. I initially joined one group and after my first year I switched to a different group due to the terrible environment in the first group. My mental health improved tremendously as a result. Both were in the same department [ai] Definitely true. On a personal note, I encourage fellow graduate students to seek as much funding outside of their PI as possible, even if they think they are covered, because money often = power. [aj]Money helps, but at the end of the day your PI writes your rec letter, introduces you to collaborators, your future bosses, etc. [ak]Securing outside funding can also make it easier to switch PIs or bring in a more supportive co-PI. I am speaking on a personal level here – it helps more than any other single factor. [al]Absolutely agree on being self-funded leading to greater opportunities and flexibility.
[am]Is this data broken out in any way to see if caucasian students were having these more positive interactions with caucasian PIs or just all PIs? Also, for those who are not caucasian, do they also have more positive experiences when their PIs are not caucasian (or even identify in the same way as the student)? [an]We did not collect PI identity/demographics of respondents. We would also run into small-numbers statistics here due to poor diversity among faculty in just our department. I think this is an excellent point to share with our future climate survey teams! [ao]Definitely – it would also be interesting to compare to another institution that does have more diversity among its faculty, especially with the number of international faculty that exist in departments throughout the US. [ap]Specifically to mentorship, are faculty required to go through any mentoring programs/trainings? [aq]There is a huge limitation with requiring tenured faculty to attend these trainings. There has been recent discussion of having “digital badges” placed on faculty profiles for those who have completed the training. A very visual form of peer pressure, but again, not a requirement. [ar]Are any proposals made to increase “buy-in” on these workshops? I feel that sometimes those going to events and programs of this nature tend to be those who already understand the importance of mental health and not necessarily those who need to hear it. [as]I echo this sentiment. At my uni, the faculty most in need of training / the most egregious ones are the ones who think it’s a waste of time and won’t participate [at]Hard AGREE. [au]Absolutely. My dream would be to tie it to tenure and promotion but that has not happened yet. We do now host mentorship training for faculty though! [av]While tying it to promotion would eventually fix this the Old guard which unfortunately is a lot of the more repeat offenders who are set in their ways would still be relatively left untouched more active / radical initiatives like linking mentorship performance to grant support would have a bigger effect. But this would be highly difficult to apply at the institutional level.
[aw]On the PI side, I am also curious who in the institution really sits down and thinks about how PI time is divvied up and what the expectations are. Given that PIs do not have a direct boss, I feel like there are a whole lot of “PIs should…” discussions without rebalancing the demands that already exist. [ax]I am curious about how this is being done? Increased recruitment? [ay]Currently, UW-Madison is working on recruitment as well as retention initiatives via mentoring programs. More on some of these programs here: https://chem.wisc.edu/catalyst/ https://chem.wisc.edu/2013/10/09/opportunities-abound-chops-and-pgsec-programs-expose-undergraduates-to-graduate-school-life/ [az]At my uni, we have had some success with a student-led team called the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT) – https://voices.uchicago.edu/grit/ They specifically work to target recruitment at URMs, work to create and maintain an accessible support network for the URM students they successfully recruited, and they work to address issues in application requirements (for instance, they were successfully able to get the GRE removed from admissions requirements across all graduate programs https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2018/11/16/grits-urging-biological-sciences-drops-gre-require/) [ba]It is in my experience that when faced with the notion of recruiting more underrepresented minorities into graduate programs department leadership has come up with rather lackluster ideas of how this isdone. As a matter of fact while recruitment seems to be increasing I would like to see how that compares to degree completion related to overall satisfaction with the program. [bb]That is why I was asking because I personally believe increased recruitment alone hasn’t helped dealt with the issue. [bc]Another factor is how is the overall climate in the department is adapting to increase presence of underrepresented minorities. Has it been embraced and flourished or have these students been tokenized in an effort to improve the outward appearance of a program? [bd]Yes yes yes. these are all so important. Increased recruitment just forces someone into a space that can be toxic. We’re working on this (because we really need to). Like Tesia said we’re trying to change our department to create spaces and be supportive. Along the lines of supporting and promoting affinity groups, standardizing requirements, increasing transparency along every step of the program (graduation requirements and PI expectation documents). There’s definitely more but I can’t think of it off the top of my head. [be]I’m just copying and pasting my comment from above about GRIT, since they are an organization that works diligently to support URM students that they’ve successfully recruited, as well. It’s a fundamental part of their functioning. At my uni, we have had some success with a student-led team called the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT) – https://voices.uchicago.edu/grit/ They specifically work to target recruitment at URMs, work to create and maintain an accessible support network for the URM students they successfully recruited, and they work to address issues in application requirements (for instance, they were successfully able to get the GRE removed from admissions requirements across all graduate programs https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2018/11/16/grits-urging-biological-sciences-drops-gre-require/)
[bf]How do you separate frustration related to failed experiments from other stressors? Isn’t part of the development as a scientist learning to deal with experiments not working and developing tools to create the desired outcome? [bg]I don’t think you can necessarily separate those frustrations. The way stressors build on one another makes them entangled so that they cannot be dissected away from each other. I think it’s more so important to acknowledge that failed experiments will exist and find ways to minimize additional stressors that can exacerbate the frustrations associated with the experimental side. [bh]Isn’t that learning to cope with failure? [bi]I think even learning from failure can be facilitated so that it is not so detrimental to one’s mental health. My current PI is very good at this, and constantly tries to make my lab mates and not take failure personally, and constantly turn it into a learning experience. The end result of all of this is that while I still get frustrated due to inevitable failures, I am more often able to go home at the end of the day and not feel terrible about myself [bj]This is an interesting thread to me. Actual results of my experiments never actually represented a “stress” for me – either when I was working in a research lab in undergrad or in grad school. The stress has all been centered around poor & neglectful relationships, lack of clarity on what goal posts are supposed to exist where. Every stupid little thing is some sort of mystery to figure out. It is incredibly unnecessary and takes away from the joy of the actual research. [bk]I agree with you on this. It may seem trivial talking about teaching graduate students how to deal with failure of experiments or grad work in general but grad school is a journey. Not knowing how to effectively deal with frustrations from work can pile up real quick and that might lead to some detrimental mental health issues. [bl]It’s also pretty important to recognize that one’s ability to “cope with failure” is heavily dependent on their support system, the degree to which they feel they have power/control over their environment and lives, the degree to which failures are expected as natural and normal by others in the environment, and their self-perceptions (which are themselves influenced heavily by the environment). I think it’s too reductive to say that it’s a matter of “learning to cope.” Coping skills are very important, but they are only reasonable deterrents when your environment and support systems are reasonably sufficient. [bm]For me, when my experiments failed most of the stress came from my former PI getting upset that I couldn’t make it work. I think the response to the failure from the PI dictates a lot more how the students will respond to it. Obviously, personalities dictate this to some extent as well, but having a PI who supports you despite the failures can minimize a lot of the frustrations due to the failure.
[bn]This is a really good point. It sort of alludes to a point I made above asking about the mental well being of PIs. How much unhealthy coping and overreaction to negative things (including data) is being triggered by the PI themselves reacting in a really inappropriate way? [bo]Jessica’s point about the uncertainty for the ‘goal posts’ IMHO can’t be overstated. That’s a conversation that all grad students should have with the PI before ever deciding to join their group. And even then, things can shift during the student’s career, but having some idea up front (and confirming similar expectations with other students in the group) should be very high on the evaluation list for prospective research group selection. [bp]I think one interesting question to ask would be, how has this value changed before and after starting grad school. In other words, did students enrolling in graduate school have a history/propensity towards problems with mental health [bq]This is interesting. I also wonder if any studies have been done to see if those who become research faculty exhibit anxiety at a higher rate than the average population. [br]I am wondering if it would help if PIs have some expertise in Psychology [bs]I think that kind of begs the question. Is that important to address? If the answer to your question Taysir is yes, then that doesn’t mean we give up on not making graduate school a negative environment. [bt]Not necessarily an expertise in psychology – but more having some training in team building and project management. It is shocking to me what PIs are expected to do when nothing about graduate training suggests that these types of things are part of the education. [bu]@rebeca Fernandez. Oh absolutely, I fully agree that creating a more supportive is something that is essential. What I was alluding to is this: the answer to my question is yes, then that would warrant further investigation into the source of these metal health issues that arose prior to grad school, and how grad school exasperated them. If the answer to my question is no, which I find the most likely scenario, then that would even more conclusively show that grad school is indeed the source of these mental health issues, and further validate your efforts
[bv]I worry about this becoming a culture of faculty just handing off “troubled” students instead of acknowledging the role they may be playing in harming the mental health of their students. [bw]I second this there are a lot of treat the symptoms not the cause initiatives when handling graduate student mental health. [bx]Agreed. How much of the issue is “my mental health” versus “this relationship is incredibly harmful but I depend heavily on it”? [by]I agree. [bz]Yeah definitely. Cristian’s point is excellent. I think that is an easy flaw of Climate Survey data. It becomes much easier to treat symptoms then address the root cause of it
[ca]How has this been impacted by COVID? Do you have any post-publication information about attendance at these office hours? [cb]This will be addressed in the 2021-2022 survey [cc]These are still hosted now but via Zoom or phone call. [cd]I wonder how grad student pay correlates with these findings. Are all grad students paid the same amount? Is it a living wage in Madison? [ce]Ooooo interesting. We asked if stress was caused by financial factors. I believe that everyone is “paid the same” unless you are on NSF GRFP. International students have to pay more fees. [cf]Many universities have different pay levels based on degree progress. It could also vary wildly by department a common occurrence pay discrepancies also tends to show up in summer funding for 9 month stipends. The summer funding can be either widely available or generously compensating. And this dichotomy has been observed way too much in higher education. [cg]The financial aspects are definitely something that should be considered. Most are compensated at levels near (or below) the poverty line. Even those lucky enough to have compensation dictated by federal programs aren’t substantially better-off financially.
[ch]In addition to faculty and staff, there are over 100 staff members in the department. I suspect that they have a significant role to play in influencing the department’s climate [ci]Great point. Also worth noting that Departmental leaders (e.g. Chair) aren’t always the most qualified to lead, but get that responsibility due to politics or the unwillingness of the more qualified to offer their time for those responsibilities. [cj]This is so true. From the staff in the department office, the technical support people to the custodians. [ck]Chemistry faculty rarely have any structured education in leadership or management. This lapse leads to difficulty managing people (students/staff) and causes unnecessary stress on those managed. I have no idea how to address this on a system level. Back when I was a PI and later as a business owner, I took some management classes. [cl]Faculty support is mentioned specifically because of the present power structure. Recommendations in the survey are were developed for all department members (including staff). Discussions of staff climate surveys have occurred, but I don’t have much information on that development.
[cm]While technically true, it can feel very much like you really only answer to your PI. I have found it quite stunning how little I know about what is going on in my building – especially when I compare it to positions in which I worked before coming to grad school. [cn]Yes, staff play an active role and we meet with faculty, staff and students frequently on various committees. [co]when I was a new BS graduate, I was hired by an academic department to support international grad students who needed help with their English, etc. This was 1980 and most labs in the agronomy department had that kind of support that faculty could rely on to support their grad students. I get the impression that this support team has dwindled significantly since about 1990 [cp]Is there historical data about the drop out rate of the department’s grad students. A faculty friend of mine who went to UW Madison as a history major in the 1980’s said he was the only person in his entering class to actually get his degree there. [cq]This likely exists in department records, but I do not have stats on this presently.
[cr]On a personal level, I have found it extremely frustrating how much time I have wasted learning about basic things at my university. Everything is do disjointed. While it is not “the” stresser, it adds an unnecessary layer that distracts you from focusing on the truly challenging parts of graduate school. [cs]I agree! I think making it more transparent on how to do things and report things helps a lot! Especially if you encounter an abusive faculty, less hoops to jump through make it much easier to remedy the situation. [ct]I suspect that the disjointed nature of the academic community is part of the education of the grad student, as opposed to the technical training aspects. This is not an efficient approach to sharing information, but primes people for being faculty members rather than scientists [cu]Ha! It is literally the 1st thing I would fix – as I have in multiple companies. Why would I want my team distracted by pointless garbage when instead I would want their eyes on the prize and the focus on the actual work we are producing? [cv]Actually there’s a lot of data that shows that this exact type of information specifically selects against minoritized students in academia. This is what we mean by increasing transparency and standardizing graduation requirements. SO that this information can be easily found and not create an undue burden. [cw]It’s a feature not a bug if you’re trying to produce more faculty members [cx]And there should be many arguments about whether or not we should be trying to produce more faculty members, given the job availability.
And, it only “primes people for being faculty members” under the assumption that the future of academic structure remains disjointed 😛
“Safety standards and practices within academia have fallen well below those of their industrial and governmental counterparts due[a][b][c][d], in large part, to a relative absence[e][f] of the financial and public pressures that become driving forces within government and industry.[g][h][i][j] However, it has been shown that a strong safety-centric culture has a significant statistical correlation with a low occurrence of high-risk behaviors, low accident rates, high productivity, low absenteeism, and long-term institutional success. Considering these correlations and the numerous devastating accidents within academia, vigorous discussions about how to build and maintain academic safety cultures have been spreading across the United States. Numerous connections between strong, coherent, safety-minded leadership and the institution’s safety culture have been made, yet the unique and sometimes nebulous leadership structures within academia often complicate and fragment these efforts, leading to diffuse, sometimes conflicting, leadership[k][l] and, therefore, a primary emphasis on regulation compliance over collaborative, proactive engagement[m][n]. Thus, here we describe a case study of the implementation of a researcher-led safety team working to bridge the gap between safety administration, departmental administration, and researchers at The University of Chicago: The Joint Research Safety Initiative (JRSI).”
“Often, the ultimate goal of researcher-led safety teams is to strengthen the organization’s safety culture. While laudable, the realization of this goal is difficult both to achieve and to quantify since the underlying conditions are vague, intangible, and not necessarily consistent [o][p]with the observable artifacts. Thus, achieving this goal likely requires (1) many years, (2) significant personnel turnover, and (3) carefully planned methods of long-term measurement.”[q][r][s][t]
Working definition of safety culture
“The precise definition of an institution’s safety culture is ill-defined and varies greatly between fields. Herein, we will use Edgar Shein’s model of organizational culture[u][v], where we will use the term “safety culture” to refer to an organization’s shared beliefs, values, and attitudes regarding safety (underlying conditions) as well as the organization’s observable safety-related behaviors, policies, publicized values, and front-facing messages (artifacts)”
Conditions at The University of Chicago
“In order to understand the formation of our researcher-led team, it is first necessary to understand the context and history of safety administration at The University of Chicago. Prior to 2009, The University of Chicago’s safety administration consisted of the traditional Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) department which was broadly responsible for the health, safety, and environmental compliance of the educational and research community at The University of Chicago. However, in 2009, Malcom Casadaban, a University of Chicago Associate Professor, died after being exposed to Yersinia pestis and contracting the plague; a mere two years later, a university researcher was hospitalized for surgery and antibiotic treatment after being exposed to Bacillus cereus.[w][x][y][z][aa] It was in response to these startling exposures that The University of Chicago restructured its traditional safety department by creating the Office of Research Safety (ORS) which reported directly to the Vice President of Research and National Laboratories and took on the responsibility of assessing research risk, providing training, and conducting regular inspections. This newly created ORS[ab][ac][ad][ae] took an active role in supporting researchers and sought to empower researchers in strengthening safety culture by implementing a variety of programs, including creating an online anonymous incident reporting tool and publishing a publicly available lessons learned repository.”
“In alignment with the key principles of safety teams discussed in the literature, the JRSI does not assume the enforcement roles or hazard training responsibilities that EH&S and ORS assume. Instead, we work to facilitate dialogues between the various administrative, student, and researcher groups within the PME and the Department of Chemistry[af][ag]. We work hand in hand with these various groups to make resources easier to access and to involve researchers more directly in conversations about safety.”
Developing Organizational Structure
Initially, “a subset of attendees interested in the practical development of a safety team began meeting monthly with administrators from EH&S and ORS[ah][ai][aj]… During this time, the JRSI continued to operate under a mostly informal structure…”
“As we started implementing our programming and as our organization began seeing member turnover, we [started] providing a small quarterly supplemental stipend [ak][al][am][an][ao]for members of the JRSI…to ensure the JRSI’s continuation.”
“we began our first round of active recruitment by sending an application to apply for board membership via email; in this solicitation, we detailed the potential benefits of participating in our organization, including distinguishing one’s CV with professional service, obtaining low-stakes experience in a safety career path, working toward the development of one’s department, and the aforementioned supplemental stipend[ap][aq]. During this first application round, we received 14 applications—8 from the PME and 6 from the Department of Chemistry[ar][as]—with 50% of applicants being participants in our first Peer Lab Walkthrough event and 43% of applicants currently or previously serving as LSCs[at][au][av][aw][ax] (21% of applicants were both participants in the Peer Lab Walkthrough and LSCs). During this application cycle, we brought on 7 new members for a new total of 10 board members.”
“The organization’s main leadership comprised the 3…members…[on] an Executive Committee made of two Co-Presidents and a Treasurer. The members of this Executive Committee are responsible for the general functioning and organization of the JRSI and also serve as Committee Chairs for four key areas of the JRSI’s work: The Publicity Committee, The Survey Committee, The Education Committee, and The Finance Committee.[ay][az][ba]”[bb][bc]
“Having upper administration buy-in was crucial to initiating dialogue with faculty, ORS,[bd][be] EH&S, and researchers, and as such it was a fundamental springboard for the development and successful implementation of nearly all of our programs.”
“the early development and organization of a shared document repository proved to be essential for efficient operation…[and the] consider[ation of] how documents will be handled with future board turnover.”[bf][bg][bh][bi]
“our new, more organized and departmentalized structure enables us to pursue a much broader set of initiatives; however, if the realization of a formalized structure is not yet feasible in the initial process of setting up a safety team, we recommend at least formalizing executive positions as a method by which to keep the team organized and driven.”
Evaluating Safety Culture
“The major and subsisting effects of our implemented programs will likely not be seen during the tenure of the original JRSI team.”
“in order to appropriately gauge the effectiveness of our Initiative and our programs on positively impacting the culture, it is imperative to utilize appropriate and robust methods to probe not only the artifacts of a university’s safety culture but the underlying conditions as well.”
“to make conclusions on the state of The University of Chicago’s safety culture and to identify specific areas that could be targeted for improvement…we developed a short initial survey…for which we offered no incentive to respond. Though we were able to glean a fair bit of information from this initial survey and were able to use it to internally motivate programming…our failure to obtain formal Institutional Review Board (IRB) exemption or approval prior to surveying precludes us from sharing the survey results with external communities.”
“One of the most surprising and important takeaways from the implementation of the JRSI was the lessons learned on the appropriate way to [bj][bk][bl][bm]conduct this type of surveying. Since it is likely that most members in a researcher-led safety team will be students without a background in designing and administering surveys[bn][bo][bp][bq][br][bs] to human subjects, we believe that a discussion on survey design and implementation is neither trivial nor unimportant.”
“having some initial surveying information permits the safety team to communicate with internal safety administration,[bt] departmental heads, and faculty about their institution’s specific needs and the ways in which a researcher-led safety team might benefit everyone, which may help to motivate both administrative and financial internal support.”
“it may not be necessary to obtain IRB approval for surveying, as long as no personally identifying or sensitive information is gathered, and the results from the survey are only used for internal program-improvement purposes[bu]. However, any safety team wishing to share survey results with external communities at any point in time, like at future conferences or in peer-reviewed papers, should obtain formal IRB exemption or approval before beginning the surveying process and should keep in mind the mitigation of potential risks to participants and potential vulnerabilities of the target population”
“while surveying LSCs resulted in valuable information, the biased sample only provided one limited vantage point of the greater safety culture…we highly recommend designing surveys that can be distributed to all members of the departmen[bv][bw]t, including graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates, and even faculty if possible.”
“while in reality most surveys implemented by safety teams will likely experience multiple iterations, we highly recommend that the survey is as complete as possible as soon as possible so that annual resurveying efforts can be comparable; even seemingly small changes can create a different surveying experience which can significantly impact respondents’ answers”
“We highly recommend consulting the literature on effective survey design before implementing large-scale surveys.”[bx][by][bz]
“It is largely recognized that collaborative, inclusive interactions increase active participation and involvement within an organization. Furthermore, it has been concluded that insufficient collaboration, specifically between researchers and internal safety administration in academia, cultivates an overly top-down, largely compliance-based approach[ca][cb][cc][cd][ce][cf][cg] to safety.”[ch][ci]
“With the JRSI in its infancy, we hosted a 2 day kickoff symposium and vendor fair[cj][ck][cl][cm][cn] to officially unveil our organization, to reach a broad base of the community, and to begin forging interpersonal connections between researchers, safety administration, and departmental administration…Two days after the invited speaker symposium, we organized a safety-centric vendor fair. In addition to their normal marketing, these vendors performed safety demonstrations and distributed safety-related promotional items such as glove samples and informational posters.”[co][cp][cq]
“One creative and potentially high-impact approach to fostering positive safety culture that we have seen implemented by other safety teams is to host a lab walkthrough event[cr]. Inspired by the UMN JST, the JRSI introduced a pilot Peer Lab Walkthrough [cs]in early 2019. This event was a friendly competition in the Department of Chemistry and the PME which was intended to promote safety innovation, to elicit camaraderie, and to encourage open discussions about best practices. The competition was a collaborative educational opportunity for research groups to share safety knowledge, creative solutions, and lessons learned without regulatory authority or the threat of punitive action[ct][cu][cv]… LSCs and graduate student researchers from both departments volunteered as judges (Figure 5A) to assess a dozen voluntarily participating laboratories (6 laboratories or 26% of active laboratories from the Department of Chemistry and 6 laboratories or 28% of active laboratories[cw][cx] from the PME at the time of the walkthrough, correcting for joint appointments). The JRSI, in partnership with ORS, established a detailed scoring rubric[cy][cz][da] adapted from the one used by the UMN JST… After all laboratories were assessed and scores were tallied, the JRSI hosted an awards ceremony[db][dc], newly developed by the JRSI, and gave prizes to the highest-scoring laboratories[dd][de]”
“We found the kickoff symposium and vendor fair to be a highly effective means by which to formally and impactfully introduce a new safety team to both internal and external communities. By organizing this larger-scale event which explicitly highlighted safety communication, we were able to generate a concentrated amount of interest and word of mouth, thereby solidifying a concrete starting point for our safety team”
“While soliciting volunteers for the Peer Lab Walkthrough was essential to the program’s mission of facilitating communication and idea-sharing, their training was not trivial; though all of our judges expressed comfort in using our scoring rubric [df][dg][dh]after the in-person volunteer training, many questions arose during the walkthrough regarding how specific situations should be assessed, and some volunteers found the process of initiating the walkthrough awkward.”[di][dj][dk]
“This can be done by using hands-on training, like through the use of a model laboratory rather than relying solely on electronic presentations,[dl][dm][dn] and by running through a full example of what to expect in a real walkthrough. With a sufficient number of volunteers, we also recommend having multiple volunteers walk through the same lab to help alleviate scoring inconsistency.[do][dp]”
Defragmenting Safety Resources
“A 2012 report by the Safety Culture Task Force of the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety identified several key barriers to achieving a strong safety culture, many of which involved fragmented infrastructure,[dq][dr][ds] support, resources, and educational materials.[dt][du][dv]”
“In the development of our website, we worked with safety administration to identify and clarify the disparate but related safety resources, both internal and external to our university, and coalesced them into a single accessible portal where all members of our constituency—researchers, undergraduates, teaching assistants, faculty, safety administrators, staff, and visitors—can navigate our broader, more complex infrastructure with ease.”[dw]
“From our initial LSC surveying, we came to realize that there were no formal guidelines provided to LSCs that detailed their responsibilities; since it is extremely difficult to perform the job well without a clear understanding of what exactly the job entails, the JRSI worked closely with ORS and EH&S to standardize the minimum required responsibilities of an LSC.”[dx][dy][dz]
“Defragmenting safety efforts and resources is a time-consuming task, but one which can offer clarity in how to best impact the university safety culture by forcing[ea][eb][ec][ed] involved parties to comb through the institution’s available resources and to interface broadly with the institution’s artifacts.”
Educating Researchers, Teachers, and Safety Contacts
“In an effort to make the most efficient impact on our University’s safety culture, we identified and targeted two key demographics—LSCs and first-year graduate students—and developed interpersonal training programs and support systems for them.”
“…we created an original program to develop safety-minded interpersonal training for these targeted key demographics. We strategized that incoming students can be strong drivers of cultural change in that they have not yet been exposed to the existing institutional safety culture; this, in combination with the fact that they still have many years of research ahead of them, may make matriculating graduate students an impactful demographic for working on long-term cultural change.“
[b]Whether they should or should not be relevant pressures is a separate question entirely. You can find information about this in the Safety Culture Taskforce 2012 report.
[c]I can look this up later (sorry if I’m just un-informed here) but do you know off hand if this is a re-occurring report and if it is how often it occurs?
[a]Were they ever at the level of industrial and governmental counterparts? How is this level measured? Is there data for this? Should financial and public pressures be the relevant driving forces for the academy?
[d]Melissa, to my understanding there has not been another report since 2012.
Dominick, it is also worth noting that much of the communications about safety culture improvement and safety administration improvement in academic settings across the country occurred as a response to massive fines and felony charges at UCLA after Sheri Sangji’s death. These financial and social/legal pressures have absolutely been a driving force in academia, and so has the absence of them.
[e]There are many financial and public pressures in academia, but they are different driving fources from government’s and industry’s
[g]Are there any citations or references for this claim by the JRSI? Do we know that it is due “in large part” to lack of financial and public pressure? And that those are indeed driving forces in gov’t and industry? And that it isn’t other large factors at play? I’m skeptical of this broad claim.
[h]I’m struggling to understand the use of quotes on each paragraph. Is that on purpose? Or an artifact of it being a Google doc? Who is quoting whom here please?
[i]You can find information about this in the 2012 ACS Safety Culture Taskforce report. All quotes here are directly from the paper cited at the top. There are no direct quotes from any other source. The information in this paper was synthesized from various different sources, which are indicated by in-text citations in the paper cited at the top.
“it is also worth noting that much of the communications about safety culture improvement and safety administration improvement in academic settings across the country occurred as a response to massive fines and felony charges at UCLA after Sheri Sangji’s death. These financial and social/legal pressures have absolutely been a driving force in academia, and so has the absence of them.”
Industry hasn’t always had incentive to drive safe practices, particularly in the early days of heavy expansion of chemical industry in the early 1900s (some corners of industry still don’t have substantial enough financial, social, and legal pressure to be interested in driving safe behaviors/environments—see meat packing plants, for instance). As some pressure was put on industry to do better to avoid worker comp suits, other legal fees, and fines, it became a bigger financial interest for these companies to proactively prevent accidents. The incentive structure is quite different in academia, and it wasn’t until fines and felony charges were seen by a major institution that academic institutions felt some substantial pressure to address these problems.
Of course there are many other very important and significant factors at play (indeed the entire point of this paper and of a safety team at UChicago is to address these other factors, which graduate students and post-docs may be able to manage some control over). The incentive structure of the institution to encourage and drive safety behavior (or not) is, however, a major influencer.
[k]Is this referring to conflict in EH&S uppers vs. PI or departmental staff/ faculty?
[l]Conflicting interests between different groups, like EH&S vs PI vs departmental staff, etc.
[m]Does anyone know if this emphasis on regulation compliance is or is not the primary driver for safety efforts at industrial or government research lab?
[n]It varies from place to place. Often in industry, there is also a strong emphasis on regulatory compliance as well. In industry, the literature shows that environments, where collaboration and worker-involvement are valued, have stronger safety culture and better outcomes.
[o]One of the goals should be professional development if we are going to be comparing our graduates to industry in order to make them industry ready. Since there are few accreditations given for graduate school degree, I am not certain of the best approach.
[p]Several of the ACS publications on Safety Culture have engaged chemists working in industry as content creators specifically because of the consistent complaint that PhD graduates aren’t “safety ready.” That being said, it seems to be a struggle to get really concrete information out of them by what is meant by “not safety ready.”
[q]One of the advantages of faculty researcher-led teams is continuity. This can certainly be built in to the JSTs, but there must also be institutional memory, and that is one thing that faculty can provide, maybe in the context of a champion?
[r]Where are the quotes coming from? The actual paper?
[s]Again, yes, all of the quotes are directly from the paper. There are no direct quotes from an uncited source.
[t]Yes, champions are important for a host of reasons, some of which are continuity and stability.
[u]Megan Gonzalez has in her dissertation tried to provide a definition of safety culture more targeted to academic laboratories.
[v]Yes, there are many different conceptualizations of safety culture
[w]Just wondering… it seems as though these accidents were in Biological labs. It is interesting that chemistry seems have taken the lead for JSTs rather than Biology, or is it a mix of disciplines?
[x]I’m also interested in this. Right now our Chemical Hygiene Committee isn’t very involved with our Biosafety Committee unless it directly involves chemicals.
[y]Great question! There is a lot of crossover between the work in biological departments and chemistry departments at The University of Chicago. The main reason that the chemistry department took the lead on the JRSI is simply because this is the group that was approached about attending the DOW Lab Safety Academy. We have had a lot of interest from Biophysics about getting involved in the team, even though they weren’t involved in the beginning.
[z]Is there any data on what percentage of active JST/LSTs are cross-departmental (overall nationally)?
[aa]I think this depends on how they are set up. A great question to explore!
[ab]The creation of the JRSI after the ORS would seem to imply that graduate students still felt as if there were needs not being addressed adequately.
[ac]I agree with this comment and wonder if it connects with the previous comment on the cited issues being biological lab heavy. Was there a disconnect between ORS focusing on particular hazards that left chemistry students feeling “left out” (for lack of better phrasing)?
[ad]I had this same thought but it would depend on how the group was started, if students wanted it because they weren’t feeling heard or if faculty wanted it to help empower students to develop a safety culture which is difficult by the ORS alone without student engagement.
[ae]There is quite a bit of time between the creation of ORS and the creation of JRSI. In practice, this means that all of the graduate students at UChicago have never known UChicago without ORS. ORS made improvements in the organizational structure, but by no means did it fill all holes.
As a side note, ORS covers all departments, not just chemistry or biology.
[af]once the JRSI was established, was an effort made to reach out to other departments?
[ag]Yes! Though to date, we haven’t yet expanded. Though there was initial interest from multiple departments, we didn’t have the bandwidth to incorporate other departments. However, now that our feet are more firmly planted, we’re thinking about how best to do this: incorporate them into one big team, or have a separate team in each department with good communication between them all? As of date, we have high interest from biophysics.
[ah]Was this a joint meeting or two separate meetings?
[ai]Does this mean that EHS did not have a member meeting with the JRSI regularly, other than these monthly meetings?
[aj]It was joint between the safety team, EHS, and ORS. At the time, we had only these monthly meetings with the greater ORS & EHS, but we always had a close point of contact with someone in ORS who functioned as a champion for us. She was in all of our email communications, all of our meetings, etc.
[ak]Who is funding this? And is this defined to equate to a certain number of hours per stipend period of labor dedicated to JRSI activities?
[al]I had same question and also wondered if money needed to fund activities is taken out of stipends or put to the side separately?
[am]Same question: where did the money come from? This would be a neat thing to ask for from VPR offices!
[ao]The size of our board is capped at 10 members. Each member gets 500/quarter (including summer) contingent on active participation. Active participation is defined as attending 10/12 yearly hour-long meetings, joining at least one subcommittee and participating satisfactorily in that (as judged by the executive committee charing the subcommittee), and helping to plan the annual Peer Lab Walkthrough. We currently serve two departments—chemistry and molecular engineering. Half of everyone’s stipend comes from chemistry, half from molecular engineering. It is awarded by the deans, and does not come out of the JRSI’s pool of funding.
[aq]The size of our board is capped at 10 members. Each member gets 500/quarter (including summer) contingent on active participation. Active participation is defined as attending 10/12 yearly hour-long meetings, joining at least one subcommittee and participating satisfactorily in that (as judged by the executive committee charing the subcommittee), and helping to plan the annual Peer Lab Walkthrough. We currently serve two departments—chemistry and molecular engineering. Half of everyone’s stipend comes from chemistry, half from molecular engineering. It is awarded by the deans, and does not come out of the JRSI’s pool of funding.
[ar]What was the demographic breakdown of time in program for these applicants? Was it primarily younger students or those beyond candidacy exams?
[as]I don’t have this information on me right now, but from memory it was a pretty health mix of all sorts of students. We had some pre-candidacy, some post-docs, and some mid-career. I think we received one close to graduation, but I am less sure about that one.
[at]I wonder why this is only 43%, I would expect that it would be higher because being involved in this program would help them fulfill their LSC duties. How many were previous LSCs?
[au]I’m not surprised it’s within this regime – I can imagine that the time commitment to serve as both an LSC and board member would be more substantial than some students would be willing to make.
[av]I’m not sure what @firstname.lastname@example.org means here. At UConn, there is no set number of hours or duties to serve as an LSC (LSO) so whether or not an individual serves on the JST would have nothing to do with “fulfilling LSC duties.” It seems that it works the same way at Chicago?
[aw]43% really isn’t a bad number in student life and student activities circles…
[ax]UChicago functions similarly to UConn (as Jessica mentioned). There are no requirements for the number of hours spend as an LSC/LSO. Additionally, serving on the JRSI board does not impact one’s responsibilities as an LSC at UChicago.
[ay]Was there a reason that the committee chairs were not independent members?
[ba]@email@example.com can you clarify what you mean by “independent members”?
Dominick, we have a Google Team Drive that has an organized repository of all of our documents and our history and are working on securing another champion since our ORS representative passed away. In the meantime, there is a process of training to secure effective turnover.
[bf]Did you run into any issues with things getting lost after new leadership turnover or different documentation styles?
[bg]Because we still have 2 founding members on our board, we haven’t actually lost any documentation with leadership turnover. However, when the executive committee leadership transferred over to non-founding members, we definitely saw a lot of problems brewing with this (they could just ask the founding members, but eventually it will be lost information). Perhaps creating a sheet detailing all of the available information and documentation could help.
[bh]This is key to many volunteer groups and often not captured as an important piece.
[bj]I have relearned this lesson the hard way several times. Sometimes the challenge is primarily language based – it is hard to get to the point of your question without slipping into jargon. However, there is also a need to understand what questions the surveyed population is ready to answer.
One way to figure this out is to use face to face focus groups to:
1) See how other people perceive the issue you are asking about
2) Understand what language they use to describe those issues
3) Figure out how to minimize the number of questions while getting the information you need.
This process pays dividends when the results of the survey come out.
[bk]I agree @Ralph. Qualitative methods such as 1:1 interviews and focus groups can provide depth and detail unavailable from surveys. All of these methods require a knowledge of effective design and evaluation techniques that many don’t realize is needed.
[bl]That is exactly the problem I have-who can we tap to help us with surveys and interviews other than doing our best based on the literature? There is no one on my campus.
[bm]@June Do you not have a Department of Psychology at your school? Or a School of Education? Or a Business School? These are common areas to find people who have survey expertise.
[bn]Would it be worth considering attempting to recruit someone from a different department who has experience with this to advise the team? If so, it may be worth what kind of incentive structure would make sense.
[bo]While we have a small number of people in the Department of Psychology at UConn who specialize in Industrial Psychology and some people at the Business School focused on the structure of organizations, I failed to find anyone who was willing/able to take the time to advise our team in this way – so it could be a tall order.
[bp]Before starting my PhD courses I opted to find a professional staff person well educated in survey design. She was quite happy to assist us and we found the process enlightening and the resulting survey much more useful and valid than our original draft (which we discarded). There are typically staff at uni’s who have this education and are able/willing to help.
[bq]It was nice that you found someone who could. My point is that I could NOT find someone who was willing to spend the time on it.
[br]We paid professional survey people housed on campus to help with this. The results were more statistically robust, but less educational than more informal approaches. Industrial Psychology people do tend to be quite busy with bigger money questions (e.g. maximizing workforce productivity).
[bs]We had someone in Industrial Psych who worked with a group of undergrads to examine Safety Culture within the kitchens on campus! That is why I thought he would be good to approach. He gave me a few useful things to look at & think about, but was unwilling to engage in a more productive way.
[bt]This is a very good point. My surveys have generally been cross-institutional, so there is a less well defined audience for the results
[bu]Always a good idea to have the blessing of the IRB. I know for the surveys that my students do, they always seek IRB approval, in case they want to publish the results. De-identifying is necessary, but a good IRB will provide examples of how to do it well, and will critique the techniques used.
[bv]These are likely to be separate surveys based on separate focus groups; don’t forgot to include support staff (administrative and technical) in this list. They often have the institutional memories that other portions of the community don’t.
[bx]Very good point, and very true! This is especially true for surveys that might be pre-post or that want to be shown to be valid instruments. The methodology for making “valid” surveys is also in the literature.
[by]I agree wholeheartedly @dominick! Many surveys are poorly designed and constructed.
[bz]And when they are designed for statistical validity, they often stray from the content of interest. “Trending destroys fidelity”.
[ca]EHS can be in a tough spot with this. They are responsible for compliance and as such, it often needs to be where they focus – especially if they have limited resources.
[cb]It is mentioned earlier that a separate ORS was established. We don’t have an ORS at my school. I have often wondered how different the relationships are between researchers and safety personnel when an ORS is introduced.
[cc]ORS is only tangentially involved in EHS for many institutions. ORS might also bear responsibility for funding and grant opportunities and oversight. That tends to be a BIG deal and they just want EHS to “be sure we are in compliance” because “being out” can cause loss of funding.
[cd]I thought the Office of Research Safety was specifically designed to assist researchers in conducting their research safely – i.e. the stuff EHS often doesn’t have the time to do. Am I wrong in this? If not this, then what do they do?
[ce]ORS tend to arise when the administrative side (facilities or risk management) get frustrated with the academic side and vice versa. My experience is that the personalities involved are the primary driver of successful colloborations across this aisle
[cf]I agree with Ralph. ORS may also have oversight of hospital/patient research safety. Those tend to get more attention than engineering or chemical safety.
[cg]There’s a figure in the paper that explains how the responsibilities of EHS and ORS differ and overlap at UChicago
[ch]In most departments, there is also insufficient information about what each lab group is doing in terms of hazardous chemicals and operations, number of workers in the group and their statuses, the legacy and anticipated directions of their work
[ci]This is certainly true from my experience as well!
[cj]Vendors can be a valuable source of support for these efforts, particularly those with contracts with the institution who are interested in maintaining good relationships with the lab community.
[ck]We tried to do this at UConn, but our stockroom manager was really against it. She said that legally they couldn’t have relationships with vendors that were too close. I was baffled as I have ATTENDED vendor fairs at other institutions (even in Connecticut), but she was adamant about it so we did not pursue it at the time. Anyone ever heard of this?
[cl]I have not. Unless the state of CT is way off the beaten track in terms of vendor practices, this sounds like an individual concern. That’s the purpose of the state bidding process – to protect the vendors from “too close” relationships
[cm]We do vendor fairs usually once a semester (sometimes once a year), so I don’t understand this.
[cn]Yeah – I don’t think it is a state issue since one of the vendor fairs I attended was at the other university in CT (you know….Yale….).
[co]Was this provided for free to the University by the vendors?
[cp]Yes, it was. Indeed, we found out afterward that vendors will actually pay you to host a vendor fair. Whoops—missed opportunity for safety team funding ):
[cq]Whoa! That’s great to know! We’ve been trying to set one of these for our safety break event that we typically host in May.
[cr]These can be very engaging initiatives to facilitate safety culture efforts. It is nice to see it done and imitated by others. 🙂
[cs]This helps to address the problem mentioned above about collaboration and knowledge of other labs operations and concerns
[ct]This I believe is one of the effective ways of building a safety community within and between departments.
[cu]We’ve been doing peer walk throughs since 2012. I like the competition aspect. I’m guessing that it caused more groups to take this more seriously and look more deeply. What were the prizes? Again, who sponsored the prizes?
[cv]It very much did. Much of the department was abuzz after the winners were announced and the prizes were handed out. We had a $500 prize to the winning lab (across both departments), and a $250 prize to the top-scoring lab in the runner-up department and the second-scoring lab in the winning department. These awards were provided by the deans. We also gave out bonus awards for creative things we saw in the labs that weren’t acknowledged by our rubric (like a cool color-coded tape system to designate chemical-free and contaminated spaces). They weren’t monetary, just recognition. This year, the deans have doubled our available award money because of demonstrated success. People were also highly interested in the award ceremony, which we initially weren’t sure about! (:
[cw]Since the publication, have these walkthroughs been repeated and has % of labs participating changed?
[cx]Sort of! We started the second round of walkthroughs in winter 2020 and nearly doubled participation! Unfortunately, we had to cancel the event because of COVID, but we’re now working on revamping a virtual walkthrough and reaching out to the many labs and volunteers who signed up last year.
[cz]Yes! It is included in the supporting information (which is openly accessible) here: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.chas.9b00012
[da]Thank you so much! I had not yet looked at the supporting info 🙂
[db]Do you think having a more publicized way of acknowledging winners helped encourage future participation and heightened safety compliance? Did you see attendance at this ceremony restricted to the participating labs or more global participation?
[dc]I can’t speak to whether it heightened safety compliance on such short terms and without good measuring metrics, but it absolutely encouraged future participation and interest. Participation nearly doubled the next year, and people were chatting about the award ceremony for a while after. There was more global participation than I personally anticipated, but it was definitely mostly participating labs. We had deans and department chairs speak at the event, and had the department chairs boost our invitation email as well
[dd]What were the prizes? Was it a motivating factor?
[de]$500 / lab award for first place, $250 / lab for two runner-ups. The money was to be used for a lab event of their choosing. It seemed to be a major motivator, initially, though we were not able to survey. I can say that participation doubled the next year.
[df]A scoring rubric or some checklist is a good idea, as it doesn’t come across as capriciously walking through the lab looking for safety violations. Providing the rubric or checklist ahead of time also helps focus things like lab clean up.
[dg]lesson learned for me here. I did not take a rubric for my first set of lab walkthroughs. Checklists create a baseline.
[dh]We did indeed provide the rubric to the lab ahead of time!
[di]This is a major science education opportunity, so professional scientists often visit other people’s labs and need to be comfortable in asking questions to make the visit as productive as possible for both the hosts and the guests
[dj]I agree that this is a vital learning moment and should happen more often.
Has this been attempted again?
[dk]The Univ of New Hampshire EHS hires chem grad students to update chemistry dept chemical inventories in the summer and this is very popular with the students because they get to learn about the rest of the Chem Dept. they also avoid being stuck in one lab all day when they don’t have classes to get then out
[dl]Videos showing model situations could also be useful from the perspective of minimizing meetings (especially for members who have participated longer and feel more comfortable with the material and are less inclined to participate with a hands-on training).
[dm]I have seen a variety of videos about safety inspections with many different tones and attitudes. they are very hard to do.
[dn]I agree – I think having a video very specific to the safety rubric is most helpful versus more generalized videos about safety inspections in general.
[do]One strategy that we found to be very effective at UMN was to have the LSO event taking place before the walkthroughs be a training event for walkthroughs. It was also a place for people to voice concerns about the walkthroughs, which allowed the committee in charge of them to adjust accordingly
[dt]it seems like we have lots of educational materials, what is often lacking is those materials being presented in a way that impacts. A student led team might be able to present that information more effectively.
[du]Agreed. Our department’s approach to safety before was “here is a list of things you can read.” TBH, I never read a single one before I started working on these things because I had no direction in terms of what was actually useful for me to read.
[dv]Also agreed! However, there are also cases where resources are lacking. For instance, there were no resources (training, reference, or otherwise) for Lab Safety Contacts at our university.
[dw]I think this is such a good idea. Having all safety resources in one easily accessible place would really help to build general safety knowledge.
[dx]This is a problem that we are dealing with as well at UMN. We have an LSO guidebook that we are in the process of overhauling, and we also have an annual LSO training meeting, but many LSOs still feel lost early on. We are attempting to implement an LSO liaison program as well as a training video to overcome this probem
[dy]Communicating about safety in the lab is not easy for anyone and takes practice. Encouraging new people to get involved to learn about other people’s science while talking about safety is one way to help break the ice
[dz]We also implemented a soft-skills-training workshop with first-years to try and help them develop and practice effective ways to communicate about safety
[ea]forcing? Wouldn’t interest be a stronger driving force?
[eb]Yes, it seems like that would lead to resentment and people taking safety culture and the JRSI less seriously.
[ec]I think this quote has suffered by being out of place or bad phrasing? I think the idea is to “force” those who are providing the safety resources to present them in a more useful way for researchers to access….?
[ee]Is this further explained in the paper? Interpersonal conflict seems to be a large reason for students not correcting their peer’s behaviors and I would love to learn more about how this training was conducted.
[ef]This is addressed in the supplementary information PDF pretty well
[eg]Thank you! I hadn’t looked at the SI yet so that’s very good to know.
[eh]Agreed. I also think a great deal of the tension between graduate students and their PIs (and how their PIs regard safety personnel) is a big part of what graduate students learn or don’t learn about research safety.
[ei]I agree to that tension point, Jessica. We’ve also had a lot of people report that they don’t verbally correct peers if they have in the past and haven’t seen changed behavior and that’s something we’re trying to figure out how to best address.
[ej]I introduced a competitive game into my lab when we had several undergrads during a summer to get people to wear their safety glasses. It was much more effective than me constantly saying “put on your safety glasses.” I can definitely understand the fatigue inherent in constant reminding. One of my fellow grad students used the gamification idea to get undergrads in a teaching lab to “bust” each other as well so it saved him having to do it all the time. I don’t really think the game could extend well to most safety practices though.
[ek]I like the peer aspect of this. We have a faculty-led course for first-year graduate students as well as EH&S face-to-face and electronic training, but I wonder if peer training sticks better, plus it allows students to ask more direct questions without feeling intimidated.
[el]We do peer training, grad to undergrads, during our lab audit teams. I think it works really well!
[em]I will be interested to see how the remote work covid requires inspires new training media. We are all going to be developing new communication skills (such as table reads)
[en]These are science skills as well as safety skills
[eo]I would push this to “these are great life skills to have”. knowing how to be supportive while recommending changes or improvements helps all over the place!
[ep]These are great life skills to have in general!
[eq]We need a course on effective communication and conflict resolution in safety!
“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:
“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]@firstname.lastname@example.org has mentioned trying to advocate for safety to be included in faculty evaluations at his institution, as have others including @email@example.com. 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. @firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
[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.
[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.
The group comments and discussions were then organized around 5 questions:
Who are the stakeholders in this story (either at BU specifically, or more generally)?
What do you think are the 3 most important take away messages from this article?
What other aspects of the grad student experience does their legal status as employees impact?
What opportunities are there for addressing the confusion these questions raise?
How does this confusion impact the safety culture of 1) specific institutions and 2) higher education in general?
Who Pays? Discussion summary
1. Who are the stakeholders in this story (either at BU specifically, or more generally)?
As a current graduate student, I would assume that I was working in the capacity of an employee of the institution here.
I’ve always assumed that graduate students are employees of the institution. Their checks have the university’s name emblazoned on it. I have come across situations, as described in the article, while as department chair where graduate students were treated as students when convenient and as employees when convenient. “When convenient” seems to be the operant term.
The grad students are the people with the most potential for contact with the hazards bc they are frequently the hands doing the actual work. Can it be that they have the least safety net? Plus they are in a poor position to fight back bc they need to recoup the time and money invested in their degree so suing the institution isn’t a go to option.
This advisor person does not seem to be involved after the initial response. Isn’t there a duty that the advisor / responsible PI advocate for the student throughout the bureaucratic mess that ensued? Perhaps the institution’s response would’ve been more robust if a faculty member had been more actively involved with seeking a remedy.
In my experience, who the stakeholders are varies by institution and even within institutions. Higher education has a complex financial structure that confuses many discussions about money.
Is there a difference between how public/private institutions should/could react?
Are there conflicting stakeholders? The graduate student, the PI, the institution (here BU), risk management, workman’s comp, the state, all have different agendas.
As the article indicates, it’s not a question EHS folks can usually answer accurately and often nor could Risk Mgmt. The unit’s business pro was best suited and able to do so.
This reflects the broken USA healthcare system. Thus, the needed fix is political. In the interim, anyone, including a student of any level, should assure health insurance. Under 25 qualifies for parent’s program, if any. Most students, including graduate students and post-docs, will qualify under the ACA for coverage assistance. Worst case is to purchase private medical insurance, often out of the price range for students.
Compensability determinations are currently made by our Worker’s Comp group. If there are complexities in the decision there is confusion about where to go and who to talk to. The Business Manager in the home department is a good source of information.
Seconded. There is a lot of confusion in the air that needs to be clarified case by case
My experience is that there is a lot of variation in the expertise of departmental business managers. In addition, the departmental clerical staff at our institution has been cut in half over the last year due to covid impacts.
2. What do you think are the 3 most important take away messages from this article?
I wonder if because of the assumption that paycheck = employee, most graduate students assume they are covered by workman’s comp and don’t even bother to ask. This is an important take away. Students should ask when they come in how the university really views them and what their legal position it.
WC has been very beneficial to employees. They are covered by law. The issue is the unclear status of a graduate student whose “employment” is linked to their education. Again, that is a question for legislation to resolve. Each of us must have medical protection while waiting for this to happen.
While I can appreciate that this question has a long history, it IS news to current graduate students.
Shouldn’t financial responsibility for medical care be part of Planning For Emergencies done by institutions?
Emergency planning and workers compensation policies do tie together.
Planning for Emergencies in labs is often as confusing as WC due to local resources (campus and municipal), diverse types of hazards needed to prepare for, and local politics.
3. What other aspects of the grad student experience does their legal status as employees impact?
Expectations and compensation for working hours
Access to personal protective equipment
Termination process concerns
When I was a grad student I was told by our student government to only say “hurt at school” so that my personal insurance would not reject a claim
A lot of places do try to list post-docs as students. I don’t think that is clear cut everywhere either.
4. What opportunities are there for addressing the confusion these questions raise?
I wonder if the National Labor Relations Board should /could get involved in mediating this nationally, or do these laws need to reside, legally, at the state level?
One idea is to develop a FAQ list that grad students should ask about safety before accepting a fellowship offer would be helpful to the grad student in evaluating the offer and the PI in framing the offer as desirable. This could be a national resource
Given how much Workers Comp varies by state, I am deeply skeptical of a successful unified approach to rectifying it across the U.S. I think a state by state approach is much more likely to be effective (though inefficient perhaps). So, then perhaps a college by college approach to encourage (require?) a unified set of best practices to be implemented locally might lend itself to the missing broad scale aspect.
Some institutions require that PI’s provide health insurance for graduate students and postdocs. Conversely, some universities do not require mandatory health insurance. There are no unified policies. At my university, we require that PI’s or the institution to provide health care for our graduate students doing research.
UC Davis has its own Fire Dept with EMTs making at least initial treatment quick, easy, and at no cost to students.
Related to ambulance costs and American healthcare, one of the concerns that has been raised is the cost for undergrads that call an ambulance for medical emergencies (lab or non-lab). If the university’s ambulance service responds it’s free, but if they are unavailable an outside service responds. This can lead to bills (after insurance) of >$1,000. This creates a disincentive to calling for medical help when needed.
This is an important point. I stress in lab safety training I do that the institution expects the lab worker to call 911 in case of emergency. For some people, this call is a significant financial risk
This is one of the reasons why graduate students will often drive other grad students to the hospital. They just saved >$1,000
What is the incentive to NOT consider graduate students to be employees?
5. How does this confusion impact the safety culture of 1) specific institutions and 2) higher education in general?
This unfortunate outcome (in addition to a GSR not having medical bills paid) was that they wouldn’t go for any treatment for fear of the costs. We saw this occur frequently (and quite sadly).
If one cannot feel that an accident can be recovered from financially, I imagine it would inhibit more dangerous lines of research. It may also inhibit students from feeling that the institution actually cares about their safety and well-being.
What kind of work performed by students does the ruling pertain to? Could laws be strengthened if WC-type coverage is extended to students who do certain types of hazardous work, such as laboratory research?
It’s sad that it takes a meeting with an attorney before the institution decided to pay. Although this article is only one perspective, it seems there was a genuine lack of caring behind the initial inaction. Although the administration seemed to say some of the right things, what they didn’t do was cover the student’s bills first and figure out how those bills might be accounted for later.
How can there we build a constructive safety culture when people on the front lines of the work are having experiences that leave them distrustful of the institutions?
Discussion of Emergency Response issues
TFA does not pose the risk of systemic toxicity that HF does. Here is one study demonstrating this difference and pointing out that PEG 400 is recommended as a topical treatment on some SDS’s, https://drive.google.com/file/d/16QsUsw3MoYcnIhm9akXF4piUUajNOCue/view?usp=sharing
We had an HF Committee (including our Occ Doc and Occ Nurse). We required grab ‘n go kits with instructions for the Emergency Dept to follow. They could/should just call Poison Control at 800-222-1222 – purposefully easy to remember! 🙂
One piece of helpful advice for people who work with exotic chemicals is to bring the SDS to the Emergency Room with you so that the ER staff will know exactly which chemical was involved. The treatment for HF is very different from the treatment of HCl, but their names sound similar in conversation
Is this why there is insistence that SDSs be printed out rather than relying on accessing them through a computer? We are allowed to embrace the latter, but then we wouldn’t have an easily accessible SDS to bring to the ER.
Dr. Casadonte also served as Dr. Megan Gonzalez’ research advisor for her dissertation “Defining academic safety culture: A national study.” This dissertation includes one of the definitions of Safety Culture Jessica discussed at the beginning of this series: https://ttu-ir.tdl.org/handle/2346/84999
When an accident like this (2010 Texas Tech) happens, it is a system failure.
Before the 2010 accident, we had a lackluster safety committee; it was a way to be on a committee, but not do any actual work.
EHS now has a much heftier line item in the budget for safety.
Faculty, staff, and graduate students are required to take and pass a biannual safety exam. The exam is randomized each time a person takes it from a question bank of ~250 questions. Everyone is required to take this biannually.
Q: What are the consequence if a faculty member does not pass the biannual test?
A: Taking and passing the test is tied into the HR system. If they don’t complete it, they don’t get paid. We had a little trouble in the beginning, but now have 100% compliance.
Texas Tech does not have unions.
The average lab group at Texas Tech has ~10 people in it.
Now working on developing effective “safety award” programs to use as carrots in the system.
Q: Could the safety award programs introduce perverse incentives?
A: We haven’t yet seen evidence of this. A faculty representative from every lab/work area with a safety concern is represented on the committee, so the test has broad support.
Q: Have you employed any means of measuring the graduate researcher perspective on the changes that have been made at Texas Tech since the 2010 incident?
A: When writing the 2 perspective articles for ACS Chemical Health & Safety, we decided not to include the graduate student who was injured due to concerns of re-traumatization. We have also not really introduced a specific way of tracking graduate student perceptions. Obviously, we would not have a graduate student population who would have been there for 10 years to compare the time before the accident and now. However, it is interesting to consider if there is some way to capture that perspective to see if graduate students do notice the changes that we have made. Things definitely “feel” different, but have not formally tracked it in any way.