The ability to learn from one’s mistakes is a central tenet of the education process. But in academic research laboratories, where simple mistakes can lead to disaster, university officials don’t have the option of approaching lab safety as a "lesson-learned" exercise. To protect student researchers and reduce institutional risk, safety professionals, lab managers and principal investigators (PIs) must ensure their laboratories comply with an intricate matrix of health and safety regulations. Moreover, to effect lasting change, they have to depend on university leaders to impose a strong safety culture from the top down and ensure it is instilled in every researcher.

Education institutions face multiple variables in laboratory settings and an increasing number of regulations governing every facet of research. Ensuring compliance is complicated and laborious. Equally difficult is improving the safety culture ingrained in laboratory environments. Through improved understanding of researcher attitudes toward safety processes, institutions can develop programs that protect their researchers more effectively without impeding their work.

Leading by Example

Research laboratories can be dangerous places under the best conditions and supervision. They are home to a range of hazardous chemicals, biological agents, radioactive materials, animals, sophisticated equipment and machinery, any of which can cause serious injury if mishandled. Intensifying the inherent dangers are personnel priorities: PIs are under enormous pressure to teach and supervise researchers, obtain funding and publish findings. Meanwhile, their researchers—undergrad and grad students, post-docs, technicians and visiting scientists—are hyper-focused on conducting experiments for coursework, degree programs, thesis development and grant-funded projects. When researchers are immersed in their work, safety isn’t always their main priority. In fact, they often consider safety and compliance unnecessary hindrances that take time away from their research.

Academic laboratories face additional personnel challenges that industry labs don’t. Alarge number of students are working in academic labs, anywhere from 10 to 60-plus hours a week, and that population is turning over continually because of graduation and new arrivals. Because young researchers are inexperienced, they are more likely to make mistakes, cause accidents and get hurt. It is up to senior research staff to protect student researchers by fostering a strong safety culture.

The problem is that at all education levels, there’s a long history of inadequate attention paid to lab safety. Senior researchers were raised in that environment, too, so they can’t be expected to lead by example if they themselves don’t understand the need to prioritize safety. Making laboratories safer requires that senior researchers adopt a non-negotiable attitude toward safety and instill that attitude in every researcher that walks into their labs. But to get senior lab members onboard, the industry has to make safety training and compliance tasks easier to manage. This requires that institutions not only impose a safety culture from the highest levels, but also support labs by providing them the tools needed to simplify compliance management.