Category Archives: Lab Safety Teams

CHAS Workshop: Empowering academic researchers to strengthen safety culture, June 5 2021

This 4-hour workshop is primarily directed at frontline researchers in academic institutions: graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and undergraduate students. Faculty and safety staff are also very much encouraged to participate.

Workshop goals are to:

  • Educate participants about the value of risk assessment
  • Guide participants towards gaining awareness of safety culture messages from the leadership at their institutions
  • Empower participants to expand their safety networks and develop laboratory safety teams.

The next workshop is scheduled for Saturday, June 5, 2021 from 2:00 PM – 6:00 PM Eastern Time. The workshop is $25 per participant. To register for this workshop date, please follow this link to our Eventbrite registration page. If you have any questions about the workshop, please email lstworkshop@dchas.org. 

For more information:

To see our Zotero list of Lab Safety Team resources. visit this page.

For information about the history of the workshop, visit this page.

Anaphylaxis Induced by Peptide Coupling Agents

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 uronium peptide 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.

LITERATURE SEARCH

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]

EXPERIMENTAL CONFIRMATION

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.

ANALYSIS

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].

CONCLUSION

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.

[f]and report 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.

[ad]https://cen.acs.org/safety/lab-safety/Peptide-coupling-agents-cause-severe/98/web/2020/01

[ae]It took until 202 for this to come out in C&EN?

[af]2020

[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

[ay]We generally use methanol followed by water

[az]Since some of the agents are known to cause respiratory distress, would a face mask or any type of respiratory protection help?

[ba]We have been using N95 masks when working with these reagents. I don’t have any data to support this practice though

[bb]This will need fit tested

[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.

Lessons Learned from the Creation and Development of a Researcher-Led Safety Organization at The University of Chicago

Presented by Sarah Zinn, University of Chicago

02/17 Table Read for The Art & State of Safety Journal Club excerpts from “Lessons Learned from the Creation and Development of a Researcher-Led Safety Organization at The University of Chicago

The full paper can be found at: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.chas.9b00012

INTRODUCTION

“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.”

IMPLEMENTED PROGRAMS

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]

Lessons Learned

  • “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.”

Lessons Learned

  • “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]

Facilitating Communication

“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]

Lessons Learned

  • “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.“

“…we developed a training[ee][ef][eg][eh][ei][ej] [ek][el][em]for first-year students aimed at developing the soft skills required [en][eo][ep][eq]to communicate effectively and to contribute to a positive and supportive atmosphere around safety.”

Table Read Comments

[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

[f]Agreed.

[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.

[j]See my comment to Dominick above for more: 

“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!

[an]Also interested in funding source.

[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.

[ap]How was this funded?

[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 @kalim863@gmail.com 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?

[az]What is the plan for continuity and history?

[ba]@bader072@umn.edu 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.

[bb]Any long-term permanent members?

[bc]Yes, there are two members on the board (out of 10) who have been with the JRSI since the beginning. Both will be graduate soon, though.

We did have a member of ORS working very closely with us (functioned as a champion and a source of continuity), but unfortunately, she passed away a couple of months ago.

[bd]What is upper administration? To me this means the chancellor.

[be]deans and department chairs

[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.

[bi]upvote!

[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.

[bw]Great points!

[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.

[cy]Is this rubric open/ accessible?

[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

[dp]I like this incorporation!

[dq]Can someone elaborate on what is meant by fragmented infrastructure? That part is not clear to me.

[dr]The Chemical Safety Board described it with a Swiss Cheese model.  Not everyone on the same page and holes in oversight, among other things.

[ds]That explanation helps. Thank you!

[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….?

[ed]^Jessica’s got it.

[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!

Starting and Sustaining a Laboratory Safety Team (LST): A CHAS DIscussion

Presented by Jessica Martin, University of Connecticut

02/03 Table Read for The Art & State of Safety Journal Club: excerpts from Starting and Sustaining a Laboratory Safety Team (LST)

The full paper can be found at: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.chas.0c00016

INTRODUCTION

What is a Laboratory Safety Team (LST)[a][b][c]

“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:

  1. Identify a Champion[v][w][x][y] 
  2. Connect to the Network
  3. Locate Resources
  4. Establish a Project Management Structure
  5. First Project: high profile and low resource

Identify a Champion

“So far, each LST had some sort of champion at the outset. The champion needs to be someone who will be with the institution for the long-term. This person also needs to show a level of commitment to the survival of the LST that will inspire that person to look for ways to make the LST longer lasting. Finally, this person needs to be in a position to know of ways to make the LST permanent, beyond the scope and view of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.”

“It was also notable throughout these interviews the warmth with which students discussed engaged faculty and EH&S staff. Many of the heavily involved students have used these teams as vehicles to forge relationships outside of their own research laboratories. Those individuals who are both intimately knowledgeable about the potential safety issues faced in laboratories and physically present in an accessible space to researchers would naturally make the most sensible champions. To that end, those schools that have made strides to develop the role of their safety personnel beyond compliance enforcement appear to be enjoying a synergistic effect between LSTs and EH&S personnel.[z][aa][ab][ac][ad][ae][af][ag][ah][ai]

“The majority of teams have partnered with EH&S staff and identified them as a source of a champion. Some teams were originally launched with primary support coming from EH&S staff members. The relationship between student researchers involved in these teams and EH&S personnel speaks to the robustness of the culture of safety that exists in the department. On the other hand, a small number of LSTs avoid EH&S altogether. There are views expressed that EH&S personnel are primarily focused on legal compliance and function as “the police” [aj][ak][al][am]within the university; other schools have teams that are actively trying to change this perception.”

“Alongside the growth of the LST movement has been a parallel movement to find ways to transition the roles of safety professionals from being merely the “compliance police” to more of a partnership role with departments[an][ao][ap][aq][ar] in supporting better (and safer) research. These strategies have manifested in many ways including changes to how EH&S personnel do business, the establishment of Research Safety offices, and the use of embedded safety professionals within research departments. Anecdotally, the success of these campaigns is highly variable in research universities throughout the US, leading to a multitude of approaches to safety. There is also very little in the published literature regarding the institutions’ experiences with these new approaches although the need for understanding the impact of these changes is great. Elevating the role of EH&S as a critical component of good research has been cited both by Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil as a key component to the programs that they have launched with universities (discussed further below).”

Connect to the Network

“In his interview for this paper, Tim Alford of ExxonMobil stated, “Safety is not proprietary.” It was expressed by student researchers from several of the teams that within the safety space, instead of competing with each other, all of the teams were working to help each other. These sentiments speak volumes to the importance of the collaborative network that has developed among all of the participants in this movement (Figure 2). This network is maintained via social media, websites, email lists, ACS workshops and resources, company mentorship, and team members directly communicating with one another[as].”

Locate Resources[at][au][av][aw][ax][ay][az]

“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.”

CONCLUSION

“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]@anthony.appleton@colostate.edu has mentioned trying to advocate for safety to be included in faculty evaluations at his institution, as have others including @dominick.casadonte@ttu.edu. 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.

[ak]Nice!

[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. @jonathan.klane@bioraft.com had proposed a White Paper on this topic within CSHEMA awhile back – I keep hoping someone picks this up and runs with it because I think knowing about how to structure this role effectively will be very important for other institutions exploring the idea.

[am]That’s a great approach, assuming you can get collegial collaboration between the two entities.

[an]This is something in my experience that is even individual lab-dependent. Some graduate students/labs in our department feel that their relationship with EHS is a partnership while others view it as more antagonistic. Unclear if this is from existing biases or due to individual lab cultures.

[ao]This is something that we also experience at Tennessee.

[ap]This is a really good point & something I think needs to be discussed more when talking about “safety culture.” It is very difficult to argue that there is a university-wide or even department-wide “safety culture” when labs can function so independently from one another.

[aq]Some of this may be related to the metrics being used by EHS to assess program efficacy.  Compliance elements may often be easier to track.

[ar]Agree with all! This is something we definitely experience at UC. I also see Chris’s point, that the ease of compliance tracking can make their role appear a certain way, at least to some people.

[as]The ACS division of chemical health and safety maintains an LST listserv open to join!

[at]Has anyone created an LST through an official university student group in order to tap into those funds?

[au]At our university it was considered, but funding restrictions made it not worth the hassle. I.e. Events planned with funds from the university must be open to all disciplines. Most of our events would not have qualified.

[av]The JST @ UNC is an officially registered student group with the university for this purpose. We’re still new and haven’t actually applied for any funds explicitly, but it seemed like a smart idea, as student fee funding may be more widely accessible than departmental discretionary funds given the current times.

The only “trade-off” we’ve encountered so far is it places some restrictions on who can hold official leadership positions (have to be students) and the makeup of the “club” has to be predominantly students

[aw]At Uchicago, we recently became a Registered Student Organization and now have access to different/more funds. It remains to be seen what type of impact this will have since there are many more constraints on funding and event-type for RSOs. However, as of now, it looks like as long as we keep two separate streams of revenue and maintain good bookkeeping, we will be able to have the best of both worlds (ie, RSO money only goes to events that are open to all, that don’t have alcohol, etc.) If we need more insular events or want to purchase awards, gifts, alcohol, etc., we use other sources of funding.

[ax]Also, some groups (including UConn JST) have applied to become ACS-GSOs in order to access funds & support through ACS – however, this requires a certain amount of your leadership be ACS members which wouldn’t make much sense for groups that are not chemistry-dominated. Because of that requirement, I know LSTs that have decided not to become ACS-GSOs.

[ay]We have a university-wide (undergraduate) student group that is run out of chemical engineering.

[az]All great feedback! Thank you! I plan to share some of these ideas my colleagues.

[ba]I love the use of safety moments or minutes! It makes thinking about safety more mainstream and less of an add-on or speciality.

[bb]Seconded! More first hand help over accident follow ups. We have been adding these to our LSC (lab safety coordinator) meetings to promote the exchange of stories between the researchers.

[bc]We’ve had some trouble getting this implemented effectively at UChicago. Some of the problems we’ve had are:

  • -Ensuring that we’re presenting correct information / getting EHS signoff
  • -Getting community buy-in

[bd]So much of the value they can bring depends on how they are used. I have read some articles/blogs talking about what I see happening in academia as well – if it is just someone (somewhat reluctantly) doing “the thing”, then moving on, they are not effective. However, if the presenter turns to the group and begins engaging them on the topic, then it is more effective. I mention in the paper at some point an LST that used “Safety Moments” to start meetings specifically focused on a particular hazard and invited those researchers to contribute their personal stories and how they deal with challenges – so there is more of a “group share” opportunity to engage.

[be]This raises an interesting point to me about the psychology of safety. As researchers/presenters begin to share their experiences with their audience or research group, I wonder if they become more invested or take more ownership in their safety training or understanding?

[bf]My experience is that safety champions do evolve from personal experiences. However, they can also burn out on safety over time and may not be thinking in terms of recruiting successors to carry the program on

[bg]Is there gauge as to the efficacy of this vs. 100% student led?

[bh]Good question. We did not start out with questions regarding effectiveness. This was an exploration of who was actually doing this organizational structure at all. We were specifically seeking teams in which graduate students (plural) were involved in the management of the team itself. A few teams were included who I would argue now are not quite what we had in mind – however, they were heavily involved with Dow early on which is why we included them here. As the movement as moved beyond the initial Dow influence, we have seen less “faculty leadership” and more graduate student leadership.

[bi]maybe less about “management”. Just wondering if having a faculty or staff member (specifically EHS type) could help the LST craft wording on comments/concerns to faculty/dept./etc… so that they might be more effectively addressed.

[bj]I do see your point in that regard. The opposing concern I have comes from experiences in “student-led groups” in which a non-student becomes the dominating force. This can often shut down conversation, sometimes in very settle ways. Students will often look to that non-student to tell them what to do. Once you kick “the adults” out of the room, you often find that the students are much more aware of the issues than you might have thought and come up with things that “the adult” never would’ve thought of. It is why I think it is important that leadership truly comes from the students – with a good supporting role played by faculty + safety professionals.

[bk]I agree that this faculty or staff champion is core to the success of a LST program. However, their good is not likely to be sufficient to develop a successful safety program.

The papers we reviewed last semester demonstrated that there is significant safety-domain expertise that needs to partner with the subject matter expertise provided by faculty champions. For that reason, I think that compliance issues need to be recognized as part of the LST environment and well understood at the LST leadership level.

[bl]Agreed!  And I think safety personnel can/should offer the background into the necessity for the compliance aspects as educational opportunities.  Rather than simply the “because its required/regulatory” explanation.

[bm]I also agree. Students need to see many sides of the safety process.

[bn]This is a primary reason we are considering creation of an LST. Our industry partners want their employees to be able to walk in and know A LOT more about safety and be able to be a safety leader

[bo]We are trying to use this a selling point to try to establish an LST

[bp]Our LST had an initial moderate success with this approach.

[bq]We also use this as a selling point

[br]This right here is why I was interested in this domain. I came to grad school knowing I wanted to go into industry. I kept hearing that PhD programs are under-preparing for this aspect of chemical work and I felt like that was  A PROBLEM! Especially since chemistry is one of those fields in which you typically see more students wanting to go into industry than academia.

[bs]I think this also speaks to the safety culture of the institution in terms of how much this is weighed as service. The stronger the safety culture, the more this is valued?

[bt]Agree. I think there comes a tipping point where enough members of faculty agree that safety has to be a priority to push it forward into a more generative safety culture. An LST can help bring attention and some action toward letting faculty know it is important to students.

[bu]Maybe we are anomalous, but I agree with you in the sense that our administration listens very strongly to our graduate students, being “front line workers” and all.

[bv]I think it can be tough for many grad students to be the ones to bring these issues forward. When you start, you don’t know what is going on (and you naively trust that everything is functioning as it should) and by the time you are knowledgeable enough to identify problems & suggest solutions, you are frantically writing your thesis and trying to graduate.

[bw]Agreed on not becoming invisible work or even a burden on the researchers. Some documentation like SOPs are encouraged but not mandatory/forced. Ultimately the Faculty have the final say and approval in this regard but the support is there.

[bx]I believe the safety training is minimum. What matters is lab specific training using the LST and PIs.

[by]Effective safety training also requires a clear definition of the work to be done; often these descriptions are not available, too vague or quickly out of date in the modern research laboratory. Addressing this challenge requires an ongoing communication bridge between people in the lab and support services provided at other levels of the institution

One example of this is the false distinction between biosafety and chemical safety. This distinction is based the requirements of funding sources rather than prudent risk assessment of laboratory hazards.

[bz]Agree with Ralph!

[ca]Agreed!

[cb]As a biological chemist, agreed 🙂

[cc]I think this is key, but sometimes struggle with how to go about doing this effectively without it seeming like  a bunch of extra work is being heaped on to people who are already feeling spread pretty thin.

[cd]Part of it may be poor/limited awareness of the value-added aspects of safety and quality management.  Both find FAR greater emphasis and expectation in industry/private sector.  Many have yet to experience those expectations in their graduate careers.

[ce]My experience is that the extra work associated with safety efforts today pays off 6 months later when safety documentation is an important source of information about what someone who left the lab was doing.

[cf]Preach!

[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.