Beryl Lieff Benderly has an editorial in Slate today about problems in academic lab safety. I have mixed feelings, particularly about this:
If Sheri Sangji’s death is to mean anything, it must be that no lab chief—and certainly no federal agency—claiming to further human welfare ever again tolerates the risk of harm to lab workers. That means that university administrators from the provost on down must make safety a serious concern and a requirement for career advancement and hiring, and tenure and promotion committees must hold faculty members responsible for seeing that everyone in their labs has the training, skills, and equipment needed to work safely. Funding agencies must make a good safety record and evidence of safety awareness real conditions for getting and keeping grants. Never again should academic research needlessly claim the life of a researcher.
On the one hand, yes, safety is critically important. Scientists must be properly trained. But on the other, for one thing, Sheri Sangji isn’t a martyr. Death doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t have to mean anything. Okay yes, that’s a pet peeve.
But Benderly’s words about how scientists in academia regard government trainings — as “bureaucratic Mickey Mouse beneath the dignity of free-spirited investigators” — are not accurate. Most scientists I’ve worked with do consider safety training very important, and simultaneously, most of them consider government training and methods to be not so much interfering as simply ineffectual. Some of those scientists are probably just being hard-headed assholes, sure. But I’ve worked in government labs and spoken with people who work in industry, and filling out an incident report if you spill water is over the top. It is bureaucratic red-tape, and it doesn’t accomplish anything. Should my job be threatened if a student that attended all of the required trainings still gets hurt in my lab because of inexperience, even though I am a conscientious supervisor and very careful about the safety of my lab?
And how many people hired to work with hazardous materials in industry or government labs lack undergraduate degrees? To put it another way, how many of them have never set foot in a lab before? There are probably some people for whom this is the case, but the majority of people hired to do, say, chemistry, have been in a chemistry lab before. They have experience. They already went through at least some of the part where you learn to remember the safety precautions every time, and where you train your hand to be steady. How many undergraduates can say the same? That’s when most people get that experience.
It’s not like horrible accidents haven’t happened in government and industry labs, either. Benderly is right to point out the statistics on that — they are much less frequent than in academic labs — but they happen. And are more likely to happen to people who are not properly trained, like, say, student interns at labs where waitlists for trainings can be longer than one summer.
I support having strict safety protocols and accountability. I don’t think going after people’s jobs is as much of a solution as Benderly does, though, and that’s not just because I’d rather never have my job in jeopardy. Some academic institutions I’ve been in have very active safety offices that routinely spot-check labs and are on top of waste disposal and trainings like nobody’s business. And in other places those offices are practically silent. The safety offices still can’t really prevent students who don’t have any experience from doing stupid things, even after having had safety training (what are those statistics on how little material is retained a few months after a lecture again? like 10%?). What I don’t support is disproportionately penalizing institutions that focus on undergraduate learning — and it would be disproportionate because that’s where the first exposure to any lab experience usually happens. And in answer to Benderly’s question, what makes academic laboratories such dangerous places to work is, in part, the lax enforcement of safety protocols the article discusses, but it is also the inexperience of new workers entering the lab.