From the provost: Lab safety — going beyond compliance to a positive culture


Members of the Washington University in St. Louis community:

Chemical research is potentially hazardous, and universities have an obligation to do all we can to instill a culture that promotes safety.

On July 31, the National Research Council released an important report, “Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research,” authored by a committee I chaired. We took a different and, I believe, stronger approach to the issue, widening the conversation to bring together safety culture experts from outside higher education, chemical researchers and university administrators.

This is the most important takeaway from our report : A holistic approach that goes beyond simple compliance with existing rules is the best way to reduce the potential hazards of chemical research — and all of the potential hazards faced by organizations.

Compliance generally means reducing hazards that we know about, but a strong, positive safety culture promotes the mindfulness that we need to reduce — or even eliminate — risks that are not anticipated by existing rules.

Some of the report’s recommendations focus on what university administrators should do to send the message that safety is important and that the whole institution must be committed to a culture of safety. We’ll be pursuing those immediately and asking folks to read the report and start adopting some of the ideas. Below is an article about the report and a summary of the findings.

We are fortunate to have strong, empowered leadership and nationally recognized expertise in Bruce Backus, director of our Environmental Health & Safety. His efforts paired with a community-wide shared commitment to safety will allow us to approach this issue in a way that relies upon every individual and every team of researchers to do their part.

We need everyone to read the report and take responsibility, and that includes me. I will be visible on this issue — don’t be surprised to see me handing out safety glasses and lab coats at events such as orientation.

H. Holden Thorp
Provost and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis

Strong, positive safety culture in chemical labs requires support from all levels within research institutions

WASHINGTON — Everyone involved in the academic chemical research enterprise — from researchers and principal investigators to university leadership — has an important role to play in establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture, says a new report​ from the National Research Council. This requires a constant commitment to safety organization-wide and emphasis on identifying and solving problems, rather than merely adhering to a set of rules and assigning blame when those rules are not followed.

Chemical hazards can be found in many academic fields and settings, including the biological sciences, medical schools, engineering disciplines and art studios. Recent serious and some fatal accidents in research laboratories at U.S. universities have prompted government agencies, professional societies, industries and universities themselves to re-examine the issue of safety in chemical research.

“The shift away from mere compliance and toward promoting a strong, positive safety culture has already yielded benefits in industries such as aviation and health care,” said H. Holden Thorp, PhD, provost and distinguished professor of chemistry and of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “We hope our recommendations help move academic chemical research in a similar fashion — toward the adoption of a culture of safety in laboratories that goes beyond inspections, standard operating procedures and chemical safety plans, all with the ultimate goal of protecting the lives and health of those who work there.”

The availability and commitment of university resources to lab safety vary across institutions, the committee found. It identified five major groups at universities and the steps they should take to support a strong safety culture:

  • Presidents, chancellors, and provosts should demonstrate that safety is a core value of their institutions by discussing safety frequently and publicly, and encouraging others to do so as well. They should use university resources in ways that support safety, for example by paying for personal protective equipment and hazardous waste disposal. They also should have in place a comprehensive risk management plan for lab safety that addresses prevention, mitigation and emergency response.
  • Vice presidents for research and deans should ensure that their institutions only undertake areas of research that they can carry out safely. They also should make sure everyone involved in the research knows his or her role in supporting safety, and should develop reporting structures that better integrate safety management into overall research management.
  • Principal investigators and department chairs are responsible for establishing a strong, positive safety culture in the laboratories they oversee, by demonstrating safe practices and wearing personal protective equipment, ensuring researchers are properly trained in safety before they begin any work, and encouraging open, ongoing dialogue about safety concerns.
  • Researchers have a responsibility for supporting safety culture in the laboratories where they work and should be encouraged to take on leadership roles, such as serving on safety committees and taking part in nonpunitive, walk-through inspections of other laboratories. Institutions should provide researchers with the equipment, training, systems and support they need to work safely.
  • Environmental health and safety staff should partner with administrators, faculty and researchers to go beyond compliance and support these groups as they undertake actions to establish a strong, positive safety culture.

“Our recommendations for improving the overall safety performance of laboratories are grounded in insights from the behavioral sciences, while taking into consideration what we know about chemistry safety,” said committee vice chair David DeJoy, professor emeritus of health promotion and behavior and director emeritus of the Workplace Health Group in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. “The committee used its behavioral sciences knowledge together with an examination of successful safety systems from other sectors, to draw lessons that could be applied in academic laboratory research.”

In addition to improving the organizational dynamics that drive safety practice, laboratories should conduct analyses that will help them identify and mitigate hazards, the report says. One key approach to identifying dangers before they cause any harm is to report and collect data on near misses — situations in which a combination of unsafe conditions and/or behaviors could have led to injuries or other adverse outcomes, but did not. Such data often are repressed or distorted when there is punitive action in response to incidents.

The committee found that though training is an important element of a positive safety culture, there is a lack of comprehensive, ongoing and laboratory-centric training and education for various groups within the research community. Therefore, department leaders and principal investigators, in partnership with environmental health and safety professionals, should develop and implement initial, ongoing and periodic refresher training that ensures understanding of potential hazards and associated risks, and the ability to execute proper protective measures to mitigate them.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., ExxonMobil Chemical Co. and the American Chemical Society. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted in 1863. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit