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Paper raises concerns about the lack of research on academic lab safety

Gaps in reporting mishaps and inadequate data sharing between institutions leave universities vulnerable, the authors say.


When John Trant took up his faculty position in chemistry at the University of Windsor, he was also appointed co-lead of the departmental safety committee. “As a scientist,” he says, “what I wanted to do was to go into the literature and find out what kind of interventions and what kind of training was empirically supported to decrease the frequency and severity of lab accidents.” That turned out to be a challenge, as the literature was scant. Further probing raised more concerns, which Dr. Trant and clinical psychologist Dana Ménard shared in their article published in Nature Chemistry this past November.

Drs. Ménard and Trant – who are partners in life as well as in academe – examined academic lab safety information, as gleaned from the literature, from the perspectives of the type and frequency of accidents, contributing factors, attitudes and behaviors, and safety training research. They underline that the study of academic lab safety, focusing particularly on chemistry, is underdeveloped, clouding our understanding of factors contributing to accidents at the level of the individual, laboratory, department and institution. While accidents like those noted over the past few years at the University of New Brunswick, University of Alberta, University of Toronto and McGill University get reported institutionally and by the media, near misses often go unreported, the two authors suggest, squandering potential opportunities to learn from mistakes.

The review by Drs. Ménard and Trant references a serious accident at the University of California Los Angeles. There, on December 29, 2008, research assistant Sheharbano Sangji, working in the chemistry laboratory of Patrick Harran, suffered severe burns from a spill of tert-butyllithium and died in hospital three weeks later.

Ms. Sangji had not received formal safety training from her supervisor and was not wearing a protective lab coat or following manufacturer’s safety protocols for handling this volatile chemical, which can ignite spontaneously in air. Reviewing the literature on lab safety since that tragedy and ensuing high-profile lawsuit, Drs. Ménard and Trant write in the conclusion of their article that, a decade on, there is still “no evidence of sweeping, fundamental changes, nor of major paradigm shifts in how academic lab safety is approached within the discipline.”

Incident reporting

In Canada, many academic institutions mandate that accidents be reported. Joseph Vincelli, environmental health and safety operations manager at McGill University, says “we must report all accidents and near misses … and document it, because this is our road map.” At McGill, says Mr. Vincelli, follow-up investigations into accidents involve supervisors and all individuals involved, with the aim of finding a resolution that ensures the accident is not repeated.

“My responsibility is my institution,” says Mr. Vincelli, and every McGill faculty member with a laboratory is informed of the accident report findings. But he says he also reaches out on listservs to other Canadian universities like Queen’s, U of T and the University of British Columbia to see if they’ve had a similar accident and how they’ve dealt with it.

Could safety be improved if accident and near-miss data were collected and shared more broadly and systematically? Mr. Vincelli is supportive of the idea of enhanced data sharing between institutions, but says, “I’m not sure how that could be done.”

Karen Bartlett, professor and program director of occupational and environmental health at UBC says her institution “definitely has a consciousness around safety in labs, but it always comes down to the individual to adhere to protocols, wear the appropriate personal protective equipment and use the appropriate engineering controls…and never work alone.” Nevertheless, she says, “the ability of the research supervisor to properly train students does depend on the training they received. … It is a vicious cycle.” For UBC, she says she is not aware of a systematic collection of institution-wide data on laboratory accidents and near misses.

Michael Blayney, executive director of research safety at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who has also written about lab safety programs, reviewed the Nature Chemistry paper for the American Chemical Society journal Central Science. It makes an important contribution to the literature, he says, highlighting complex issues involving individual differences and institutional culture. But, he adds, it raises more questions than it answers.

Much of what is taught about safety tends to be based on anecdotes, or “this is how my supervisor did it, and so this is how I do it,” argues Dr. Ménard, referring to the prevalence of received wisdom in chemistry labs passed from one generation to the next. Are there more accidents on the weekends? At night when people are tired? For new students versus old students? “We don’t know,” she says, “and we also don’t know how to train the next generation. How do you teach safety so that students care?” The lack of answers to these questions, she says, leaves us “on very shaky ground.” An evidence-based approach, the two authors say, would help manage risk more effectively.

“One of our hopes from the paper is that this launches a whole new research program,” says Dr. Trant, adding that he has already received expressions of interest from potential collaborators in psychology, chemistry, labour studies, business and engineering. “We want to say, ‘here’s what works, here’s the data showing it works, here’s how you can institute this policy at your institution,’” he says, because right now, “that doesn’t exist.”

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  1. Montgomery / February 4, 2020 at 04:59

    Just a head’s up – Sangji’s name is misspelt.

    • Léo Charbonneau / February 4, 2020 at 08:47

      Thank you, that was our mistake. The name has been corrected.
      Léo Charbonneau, editor