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And those failures, safety experts say, arise largely from the way university research is structured and the incentives this structure creates.In industry, doing research safely is “a matter of doing business,” Harry Elston, editor of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, told me: Have a bad injury in your lab and “you’re not going to have a job the next day.” Occupational safety laws make potential liability for injury loom large, and that encourages companies to emphasize strong safety consciousness, extensive training, careful planning and analysis to mitigate risks, mandatory use of protective apparel and equipment, and more.In other words, many of the hundreds of thousands of aspiring and early-career scientists — undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and technicians — who labor in the labs, shops, and field stations of the nation’s universities appear to spend their days in an environment plagued by risks that are well known, yet uncorrected.
Yet this does not imply close university supervision.
Supporting its programs and payrolls through grants, each lab functions essentially as an independent “small business” that uses undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and technicians as an inexpensive labor force, says the safety expert Langerman.
After the disasters, UCLA and Hawaii each received citations and fines for serious (that is, potentially life-threatening) violations from state safety agencies that had also noted earlier, unresolved issues.
But these citations raise another important and often overlooked point.
Reporting standards vary among the American states; some universities come under the U. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s authority, and thus must report workplace safety injuries, while others follow state laws, some of which exempt government entities like public universities entirely from the need to report.
The best available overview comes from a 2011 study by the U. Chemical Safety Board, which followed the Texas Tech explosion.
At Dow, safety was a high-priority issue, its former executive Banholzer adds.
If a lab was running unsafely, he would “shut it down.” But no American faculty member has lost a job because a student was injured or killed in his or her laboratory.
As the CSB report notes, these incidents all reflect similar types of failures and signify the flawed and dangerous approach to lab safety that prevails at many universities.
Campuses across the country, the report suggests, lack adequate safeguards and organization-wide safety consciousness reaching from top administrators through department heads to principal investigators in charge of labs and to senior lab staff, all of whom are responsible for protecting vulnerable lab workers.