Researchers are hoping data-driven exploration can provide insight and best practices to bring about a change in lab safety culture.

Laboratory culture emphasizes safety only to a point. The pivot point is where safety runs up against dueling priorities, both competitive and fiscal. Numerous competing pressures impact researchers, whether they’re inexperienced undergrads or the most lab-forged senior scientists. Mix pressures with the complexities that come with tracking the many variables that are part of any research institution, and even laboratories with the best intentions—and high compliance ratings—come up short on the safety front.

A growing collective awareness, coalesced by serious lab accidents at U.S. universities in recent years, has the scientific community closely examining the culture of laboratory safety. The hope is that a data-driven exploration can provide the insight needed to improve safety culture, and by doing so, the safety of everyone working in laboratories. Gathering initial datasets needed to gain this insight was the goal of the international “Laboratory Safety Culture Survey 2012,” launched to better understand laboratory safety practices and perceptions from the viewpoint of those most directly impacted—researchers themselves. The Laboratory Safety Culture Survey is a joint effort between BioRAFT, the Univ. of California Center for Laboratory Safety and Nature Publishing Group.

The survey, whose results were released early this year, is the first in a series designed to gather actionable empirical data that can be leveraged to improve research safety practices. The plan is to launch subsequent efforts that target research administrators and safety oversight officers. Absent the data needed to understand safety practices from all these perspectives, it would be impossible to develop programs with the muscle capable of shifting the entrenched laboratory culture to one that “internalizes” safety. 

Survey results

Though 95% of the nearly 2,400 researchers anonymously surveyed reported that lab safety is either very or quite important to them personally, they appear to understand that achieving compliance doesn’t necessarily ensure better safety outcomes. For example, 83% agreed they had received sufficient safety training to be compliant with rules and regulations governing their laboratories, yet 26% named their institution’s focus on compliance requirements over safety as a leading barrier to lab safety. 

When asked about their institution’s training objectives, 41% agreed that training efforts were focused on compliance requirements rather than improving laboratory safety. Further, 40% of respondents say they didn’t receive safety training on the specific agents and hazards they use or encounter during the course of their research. 

In fact, when asked if they perceived a direct correlation between safety compliance and the severity and frequency of accidents and injuries in their labs, 37% of researchers who’d witnessed at least one minor injury disagreed that compliance with all safety procedures could reduce this level of injury. More than a quarter (26%) of those who had seen at least one major injury during their time in the lab disagreed that compliance would reduce major injuries. 

Also noteworthy is the timing of training. Though 68% of those surveyed reported that safety training was provided before they were allowed to work on any experiments, 21% said they received training within 30 days after they began work and 3% more than 30 days after. Around 16% said personnel don’t receive such training until they’re notified by safety administrators, while 10% reported they receive it only if they request it or if the safety staff notifies them. 

The survey’s results suggest that researchers themselves understand the connection between safety training and education and safer laboratory environments. The productivity issues laboratory personnel have long complained about appeared to be validated by responding researchers’ perceived barriers to lab safety. When asked to name the primary barriers, 45% of respondents named time and hassle factors. Meanwhile, 27% cited a lack of understanding of safety requirements, 20% cited the lack of and/or inadequate safety training and 11% named untrained staff as impediments to lab safety.

Better training protocols

At the core of laboratory safety programs are strategic education and its tactical workhorse, training. Without improvements in both, safety itself won’t improve. To achieve this, organizations have to align safety initiatives with high-quality objectives focused on much more that meeting compliance requirements.

To be effective safety drivers and also effect cultural change, training protocols and course delivery must be capable of aligning with a researcher’s hazard-specific lab activities, not with their job title and its general focus criteria. An activity-driven approach to training management focuses on delivering the right training mix from the moment a new scientist begins work, and on iteratively adapting as their activities evolve. 

Break it down, and it’s easy to understand why job activities should dictate and trigger training. Consider research activities in the context of equipment. Analytical X-ray machines, for example, may be integral to a scientist’s work, but their use is an activity, not a job title. An institution that manages training based on title alone might overlook the critical need to provide comprehensive training for this equipment segment, especially if its usage becomes part of an activity profile well into a researcher’s education track or tenure.

 The limitations of title-driven training protocols are only one in a series of complex challenges that contribute to safety officers missing training requirements that should be mandatory for certain researchers. The teams in charge of training programs may be overseeing a large university system, required to understand the training needs of thousands of researchers of varied experience levels cycling in and out, multiple laboratories with multiple functions, and multiple kinds of equipment, agents, hazards and conditions. They’re further challenged if they’re relying on traditional approaches to developing training courseware and traditional methods for delivering training courses and tracking individual compliance status. To ensure compliance with regulations and in-house procedures just for the equipment their laboratories use, they have to track every researcher and worker using or in contact with every device, their compliance status and their safety training records, as well as licenses and certifications, usage logs, lockout-tagout logs and much more.

A safe solution

What’s needed to address the current shortcomings in training practices and delivery? Though training is just one component of a larger safety education strategy, it’s a critical one. Best practices call for institutions to utilize a strategy that combines multiple levels of training requirements identification. This should include establishing both lab-wide (e.g., “Biosafety Level 2 laboratory”) and activity-based (e.g., “Works with Bloodborne Pathogens”) protocols that automatically notify researchers of specific training requirements as soon as they join a new laboratory, and whenever they’re assigned to work with new agents, hazards or equipment. A critical component to making this work is for institutions to involve principal investigators (PIs) and their researchers in identifying their hazard-specific job activities, and designing course content that targets these activities.

Specifically, when a new scientist joins a laboratory, safety officers and PIs identify the individual’s hazard-specific job activities and exposures. Along with any general training requirements, that action should trigger pre-defined parameters dictating the specific training required for each activity, whether it involves working with various classes of highly hazardous chemicals or using equipment that exposes them to radiation. Furthermore, to ensure proper safety and risk coverage, the institution should establish default rules for lab-wide activities based on codified descriptions such as “exposed to animals and animal materials.” 

With all relevant job activities defined for their labs, any new activity should trigger a check of the associated requirements and fire out emails to relevant researchers, along with links to appropriate online courses or a sign up for classroom/in-person training. An automated method should also be set up to enable PIs and lab managers to review their laboratory’s job activities and make necessary changes, which would automatically adjust training requirements. The result is a training program and courseware portfolio closely aligned with job activities, significantly improving the chance that training requirements are in sync with real-world research requirements. 

The Laboratory Safety Culture Survey partners continue to analyze the survey data and share their findings. The goal is to take findings from this researcher-targeted survey, and those from safety personnel and research administration surveys, and use them to design future research projects for identifying data-driven methods that positively affect laboratory safety culture. In collaboration with research leadership, the partners will work to define best practices in laboratory safety so institutions can effectively apply them throughout their research institutions.