John Trant and Dana MénardUWindsor researchers John Trant and Dana Ménard say their review of academic lab safety paints a troubling picture.

Researchers shine light on lack of ‘safety culture’ in academic labs

The reporting of accidents in academic labs — resulting in deaths, injuries, or close calls — leaves much to be desired, a study by a pair of UWindsor researchers has found.

A literature review by clinical psychologist Dana Ménard and chemistry professor John Trant, published this week in the January 2020 issue of Nature Chemistry, has found there’s no comprehensive data on the types or frequency of injuries or “near-misses” in academic labs. And because reporting is voluntary, there are massive gaps, undermining the opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

“It paints a troubling picture,” said Dr. Ménard.

A possible explanation, said Dr. Trant, is that “lab safety is mistakenly seen as a nuisance that gets in the way of research.”

The husband-and-wife team approach lab safety research through the lenses of both natural science and the social sciences.

“As a chemist, I don’t think much about human behavior. I worry more about what the molecules do,” said Trant.

“With both of us working together, we can do what each of us can’t do alone.”

Ménard and Trant begin their article recounting the chemical fire that claimed the life of a research assistant at University of California, Los Angeles in 2008. It was the third lab accident at UCLA in 14 months. Ménard and Trant said the chemistry research community initially believed it would be a watershed moment, one which would spur changes in attitudes and practices.

Instead, they state in their article, “There is no evidence of sweeping, fundamental changes, nor of major paradigm shifts in how academic lab safety is approached.”

In fact, there were at least 10 more deaths and untold injuries in academic labs around the globe during the following decade.

Working alone in labs is common. Working late into the night, on weekends, or on holidays is not considered risky, but as evidence of a strong work ethic. When there is an incident, it’s not seen as the institution’s fault, or the fault of the faculty member or supervisor who heads the lab.

“The consideration of human factors has tended to centre on blaming victims for their behaviours that led to or aggravated an accident,” Ménard and Trant write.

Students aren’t considered employees, so they are not usually covered by health and safety legislation governing workplaces. Often, there’s no public body or agency to conduct an investigation and make recommendations to prevent future incidents.

The same risky behaviours get repeated and become commonplace. Researchers don’t always wear protective equipment like goggles, lab coats, and gloves; they leave skin exposed by wearing shorts or sandals; and they experiment with reagents about which they are not sufficiently knowledgeable.

“Overall, there’s a lack of safety culture that has been normalized.”

The article ends with a barrage of questions, stressing the need for committed leadership from research institutions.

“The state of academic safety research is unconscionable and cannot be allowed to continue,” Ménard and Trant conclude.

The couple are in the process of developing a number of studies on the topic of lab safety. They plan to delve into how often accidents occur, when people choose to report accidents (or not), and the mental health consequences of being involved in or witnessing accidents.

─ Sarah Sacheli