The Fourth Annual Laboratory Safety Survey

Results indicate significant backsliding in lab health and safety practices

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Last year we happily reported that “despite continuing economic pressures that might have made lab health and safety a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have,’” there had been substantial improvements in lab health and safety practices. Unfortunately, we cannot report the same trend this year. In fact, what we learned from this year’s survey is that there has been a significant across-the-board decrease in all aspects of laboratory safety practices, which begs the question “Why?”

Demographics

This year 579 lab professionals participated in the survey, compared with 464 last year. Most of the respondents—43 percent—were again from the supervisor, director, or manager levels. Their areas of work were distributed fairly evenly among the environmental, chemical, microbiology, biotechnology, cell biology, food & beverage, forensics, and energy industries. A slightly smaller percentage of respondents were involved in cancer/oncology, clinical, immunology, pharmaceutical, genetics, neuroscience, and “other.”

As for the types of research organizations respondents worked in, the majority were university or college (25 percent), clinical or medical (21 percent), industry (14 percent), and government (8 percent). The balance of respondents, at much smaller percentages, worked in contract labs, private research, and manufacturing. These numbers were fairly similar to last year’s with one exception. The number working in “other” types of labs increased from 2 percent to 17 percent. However, nearly identical 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 12 percent worked in labs with 101 or more people.

Safety and hygiene

This year we found that laboratory safety and hygiene practices from 2012 to 2013 had taken a serious turn in the wrong direction. For example, this year 59 percent of respondents said their labs have designated chemical hygiene officers compared to 75 percent last year. And 4 percent fewer respondents said that their labs had a designated safety officer (77 percent versus 81 percent last year.) But these are just two examples of this downward trend.

Equally troubling were reported declines in laboratory recordkeeping practices. This year’s survey reports a 15 percent decrease in the number of respondents current in their annual chemical and hygiene planning and training (71 percent versus 86 percent), an 8 percent decrease in those having a complete and current chemical inventory (83 percent versus 91 percent), and a whopping 17 percent fewer labs having a current biological safety manual (56 percent versus 73 percent). As for materials safety data sheets and the UF Laboratory Safety Manual being available to lab personnel, both remained constant year over year.

Health and safety

In basic laboratory health and safety management practices, we also saw consistent declines. Eleven percent fewer labs reported that hazards identified by previous safety audits had been abated (81 percent versus 92 percent). Ten percent fewer respondents said that workers using biohazards, toxins, and regulated carcinogens had received special training (80 percent versus 90 percent). There was a 5 percent drop in the number of labs reporting that current chemical and lab safety manuals were accessible to every worker in the lab and that workers had been trained in how to respond in the event of an accident such as a chemical spill (both 91 percent versus 96 percent). Another 5 percent fewer respondents said that standard operating procedures (SOPs) had been written for each laboratory task (76 percent versus 81 percent). Smaller percentage declines (2 percent) were reported for workers being properly trained in chemical safety, physical hazards, and laboratory safety; instructed in laboratory emergency action/fire prevention plan procedures; and performing periodic laboratory safety inspections.

Inspections

When it came to laboratory safety inspections, the same number of respondents (32 percent) said that their labs conducted those annually. Also constant was the number who said they conducted inspections every two years or more (4 percent) and biannually (13 percent). Drops in inspection intervals were reported for those who perform inspections monthly (26 percent versus 30 percent) and those who perform inspections quarterly (14 percent versus 17 percent).

General safety practices

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 negative trend. While most of the reported declines were relatively insignificant, a few were notable and troubling. For example, the largest drop in compliance was to the statement “Sinks are labeled ‘Industrial Water—Do Not Drink,’” with yes answers down 21 points, from 50 to 29 percent. To the statement “All shelves have lips, wires, or other restraints to prevent items from falling,” the yes answers were down twelve points, from 65 to 53 percent. Another notable decrease was the response to the statement “The furniture is ergonomically adequate,” with 13 percent fewer yeses (70 percent versus 83 percent). When asked whether there was adequate noise control in their labs, respondents answered in the negative, with 80 percent yeses compared to 87 percent last year and 90 percent in 2011—a full 10 percent drop over the past three years. Possible explanations might include more open floor plans or greater use of personal electronic devices.

Hazardous materials

Of the nine statements concerning hazardous materials management in the lab, declines over 2012 numbered six, no change was indicated for one, with only two statements showing improvement. Those statements that had the only jump in yes answers were “Hazard evaluations and exposure assessments have been conducted for high-hazard/low-PEL material use in the lab,” moving up ten points from 82 to 92 percent, and “Chemicals are inventoried (chemical name, quantity on hand, amount used per year),” moving up six points, from 87 to 93 percent. Besides the same year-over-year response to the statement “All regulated carcinogens are handled safely to reduce employee exposure” at 96 percent, the balance of statements all showed a decline in yes responses. The most significant had to do with chemical management, with a troubling 27 percent fewer respondents saying yes to the statement “Chemicals are separated by hazard class and stored to prevent spills (acids, bases, oxidizers, flammables, etc.)” (68 percent versus 95 percent) and 12 percent fewer yeses to the statement “Chemical waste containers are properly segregated, sealed with tight-fitting caps, and stored with EH&S Hazardous Waste labels attached to the containers” (81 percent versus 93 percent). Four remaining statements all shared a reduced percentage of yeses in the three- or four-point range for issues concerning chemical labeling, showers, eyewashes, and sharp objects.

Fire and electrical

In the category of fire and electrical safety, we saw a very similar downward trend, though nothing too dramatic. Of the eight statements, all responses indicated declines in fire and electrical safety practices, with the average overall drop being 3.6 percent. The greatest was to the statement “All circuit breakers are labeled to indicate what equipment is served by each,” with 7 percent fewer respondents answering yes (72 percent versus 79 percent).

Laboratory equipment

Of all the categories, laboratory equipment safety represented the greatest and most disturbing decline in laboratory safety practices, with an average drop of nine points across all twelve statements. This category covered BSCs, fume hoods, and gas cylinders. And as you can see in the chart below, every single yes answer showed a decline, with the most dramatic being to the statement “Non-spark-proof refrigerators (household types) are labeled ‘Unsafe for Flammable Storage,’” dropping a full 20 points, this after a six-point increase the year before. Other significant drops in safety practices concerned gas cylinders.

Changes in Lab Safety Practices from 2011 to 2013

  2013 2012 2011
Please respond to the following Laboratory Equipment safety statements. Yes Yes Yes
All biological safety cabinets and chemical fume hoods have been tested within the past year. 82% 92% 89%
Test labels are properly affixed to the fume hoods and biological fume cabinets tested. 83% 93% 90%
Storage in fume hoods and biological safety cabinets is kept to a minimum and is placed so as to not impede proper airflow. 89% 93% 93%
All rotating or movable parts and belts are properly guarded with screens. 79% 90% 89%
All refrigerators/freezers used for storage of flammables (non-sparking/laboratory safe) are properly labeled. 83% 90% 92%
Non-spark-proof refrigerators (household types) are labeled "Unsafe for Flammable Storage." 52% 72% 66%
All gas cylinders are chained to an immovable object to prevent tipping or falling. 91% 93% 96%
Valves of gas cylinders are capped when not in use. 87% 91% 94%
Gas cylinders are stored with other compatible gases. 87% 93% 95%
Gas cylinders are not emptied completely, but left with 25 psi to prevent backflow. 59% 73% 73%
Empty cylinders are marked "MT" or "EMPTY" and stored separately. 77% 86% 87%
Rooms containing compressed gases have a sign outside the room stating COMPRESSED GAS and the name of the gas and hazard class. 57% 69% 67%

So as this year’s lab safety survey reveals, lab safety practices have declined significantly from last year and hopes for continued improvement from the year before have been seriously dashed. Whether we can attribute this to economic pressure, lax management, or lack of regulatory or enforcement muscle is anyone’s guess. We can only hope that whatever is creating this distressing trend improves over the next 12 months.

Categories: Surveys

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Calculating Workplace Tragedy

Published: June 1, 2013

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