Three years ago we began surveying our readers to find out about their lab safety practices and to track how those practices change moving forward. Last year’s survey indicated fairly substantial improvement over 2010 despite the continuing economic pressures that might have made lab health and safety a “nice to have” and not a “must have.” But that was not the case last year, nor was it the case this year, when we found modest but steady improvement across nearly all lab health and safety categories.
This year 464 lab professionals participated in the survey. Most of the respondents (just under half) were again from the supervisor, director, or manager levels. The largest areas of work were fairly evenly distributed among the biotechnology, chemical, clinical, environmental, and microbiology industries. A slightly smaller percentage were involved in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries, while the balance worked in cancer/ oncology, cell biology, drug discovery, forensics, genetics, immunology, neuroscience, and “other.”
When it came to the types of research organizations respondents worked in, the majority were university or college (28 percent), clinical or medical (26 percent), industry (18 percent), and government (11 percent). The balance, at much smaller percentages, worked in contract labs, private research, and manufacturing. These numbers were nearly identical to last year’s. Also similar to last year’s results was the size of respondents’ labs, with almost half (42 percent) working in labs with ten or fewer people. Only 10 percent worked in labs with 101 or more people.
Safety and hygiene
This year we found that the differences in laboratory safety and hygiene practices from 2011 to 2012, while rather small, were moving in the right direction. For example, 75 percent of respondents said their labs have designated hygiene officers, up three percentage points from last year. And 20 percent of respondents reported that their labs do not have designated hygiene officers, down four points from last year (24 percent vs. 20 percent). For designated safety officers, the percentage greater was even smaller but positive just the same, with 81 percent having designated safety officers compared with 80 percent last year and one percent fewer not having designated safety officers in their labs. While the numbers aren’t dramatic, the trend is promising.
Equally positive were improvements in all kinds of laboratory record-keeping practices. This year’s survey reports a nine percent increase in the number of labs having a copy of the UF Laboratory Safety Manual (56 percent vs. 47 percent), a six percent improvement in being current in their annual chemical and hygiene planning and training (86 percent vs. 80 percent), and a five percent increase in those having a biological safety manual (73 percent vs. 68 percent). As for materials safety data sheets and chemical inventories, both of those remained constant year over year at 99 percent and 91 percent, respectively.
Health and safety
In basic laboratory health and safety management practices, we also saw small and consistent improvement, with minor exceptions. Four percent more labs reported that their chemical and lab safety manuals were current and accessible to every worker (96 percent vs. 92 percent). One percent reported that those workers using biohazards, toxins, and regulated carcinogens had received special training (90 percent vs. 89 percent). Another one percent more respondents said that all workers were instructed in emergency action/fire prevention plan procedures (97 percent vs. 96 percent) and that all hazards identified by previous safety audits had been abated (92 percent vs. 91 percent). Two percent more respondents said that workers had been trained in how to respond in the event of an accident such as a chemical spill (96 percent vs. 94 percent).
However, there were a few downturns in this category, which included a one percent decline in the number of labs that said workers were properly trained in chemical safety, physical hazards, and laboratory safety (94 percent vs. 95 percent). Another one percent fewer labs reported that periodic laboratory safety inspections were performed by lab workers (88 percent vs. 89 percent). Fortunately, these small percentage decreases were outweighed by greater increases.
When it came to safety inspections, about a third of respondents (32 percent) said that their labs conducted those annually, followed closely by those who hold inspections monthly (30 percent), quarterly (17 percent), and twice a year (12 percent). Compared with 2011, these new numbers represent a general increase in the frequency of safety inspections, with a three-point increase in those doing inspections every six months and every month. Decreases were reported in longer inspection intervals: every two years— down four points and annually—down one point, which all in all is an improvement in the frequency of safety inspections.
When asked 18 questions concerning general safety management practices, such as labeling, clutter, lighting, first aid kits, and protective clothing, the answers also indicated a positive trend. Of those 18 categories, 11 showed improvements from last year, four showed lack of improvement, and three remained the same as in 2011. The greatest jump in improvement was to the statement “Sinks are labeled ‘Industrial Water - Do Not Drink’”—with yes answers up nine points, from 41 to 50 percent. Another response indicating considerable improvement was to the statement “All shelves have lips, wires, or other restraints to prevent items from falling”—with yes answers up five points, from 60 to 65 percent. The most notable decreases in improvement were responses to the statement “There is adequate noise control to allow workers to focus on their work”—with yes answers down three points from 90 to 87 percent, and to “All employees know the location of the first aid kit and it is accessible”—down two points, from 95 to 93 percent.
Of the 12 statements concerning hazardous materials management in the lab, improvements over 2011 numbered nine, no change was indicated for three, and only one statement—“Chemicals are properly labeled to identify contents and hazards”—dropped one point, from 98 to 97 percent. Those statements that had the greatest jump in yes answers were “Hazard evaluations and exposure assessments have been conducted for high-hazard/low-PEL material use in the lab (e.g., formaldehyde, methylene chloride, etc.),” moving up four points, from 79 to 83 percent, and “There is a designated chemical hygiene officer for the lab,” moving up three points, from 72 to 75 percent. The highest percentage of yeses were to the statements “All regulated carcinogens are handled safely to reduce employee exposure” and “All sharp objects are stored in punctureproof containers and labeled appropriately (medical or hazardous waste),” both at 96 percent, followed by “Chemicals are separated by hazard class (acids, bases, oxidizers, flammables, etc.) and stored to prevent spills” and “A plumbed emergency shower is available within 100 feet of all areas where chemicals may splash onto an employee’s body,” both at 95 percent yes.
Fire and electrical
In the category of fire and electrical safety, nearly the exact pattern was repeated. Of the eight statements, improvements in yes answers numbered six, lack of improvement numbered two, and one statement, “Fire doors are unobstructed and easily closed,” remained the same as last year at 96 percent yes. The greatest improvement in this category— with a three-point increase in yeses over last year—was to the statement “All flammable liquids are stored in flammable-proof storage cabinets.”
The only category in which improvement and lack of improvement negated each other was safety of laboratory equipment. And as you can see in the chart below, the number of statements to which the yes answers rose was the same as the number that did not—with five percent each. Two statements retained the same number of yeses as the year before. Notable here was the six-point increase in improvement to the statement “Non-spark-proof refrigerators (household types) are labeled ‘Unsafe for flammable storage,’” and two with three-point gains: “All biological safety cabinets and chemical fume hoods have been tested within the past year” and “Test labels are properly affixed to the fume hoods and biological fume cabinets tested.” A bit distressing was that three percent fewer respondents answered yes to the statement “All gas cylinders are chained to an immovable object to prevent tipping or falling,” especially compared with 2011, which reported a seven percent increase in yes answers to this same statement.
So as this year’s lab safety survey reveals, lab safety practices continue to improve for the most part, though not to the same degree as was reported from 2010 to 2011. We can only hope that the upward trend continues, no matter how small the percentage increases.