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Ask the Expert: Implementing & Maintaining Lab Safety Programs

James Gibson, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S), and Nancy Wayne, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology and Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), discuss the recently formed UC Center for Laboratory Safety, its mission and its goals.

by Tanuja Koppal, PhD
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James Gibson, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S), and Nancy Wayne, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology and Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), talk to contributing editor Tanuja Koppal, Ph.D., about the recently formed UC Center for Laboratory Safety, its mission and its goals. They emphasize the fact that there is not much peer-reviewed literature available and no easy access to information and guidance on laboratory safety. Hence, one of the goals of the Center is to address important questions concerning lab safety, and to create lab practices based on empirical data, which will then be made available online for researchers to study and implement.

Q: Can you give me some background on how and why your Center for Laboratory Safety was created earlier this year?

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A: [Gibson]: Chancellor Gene Block, here at UCLA, issued a challenge for us to be best-in-class in laboratory safety. As I started speaking with principal investigators (PIs) to figure out how to meet that challenge, many of them asked to see the data showing that the things we were putting in place were actually going to be effective at protecting the health and safety of the researchers. As I looked into the data, I found there really wasn’t much out there, and the more I dug, the more I realized that there was a need for research in this area. Data was really going to be effective in convincing PIs to change behaviors or to make sure that certain things are being applied in the laboratories. So the chancellor’s challenge, along with the curiosity of the researchers here at UCLA, convinced me that there needs to be some entity that really focuses on research into laboratory safety. That’s really what brought this idea together in creating the Center.

A: [Wayne]: There have been a lot of questions on what evidence there is that certain regulations and lab safety protocols actually make researchers safer. It’s been very difficult to find answers to these questions in peer-reviewed literature. There really isn’t much on laboratory safety, like there is on hospital safety, aviation safety and food safety. So the UC Center for Laboratory Safety was created in order to address really important questions concerning lab safety, and to create safety programs based on empirical data rather than developing them solely on what makes sense.

Q: What types of studies are you looking to design to create these best practices around lab safety?

A: [Gibson]: So much of this is behavioral, and I think initially what we’re going to be looking at is how to effect changes in behavior. So we’re going to be looking at designing surveys to find out what the current perceptions are, what the current behaviors associated with laboratory safety are and what interventions we can put into place that might improve laboratory safety.

A: [Wayne]: The first project that we’re designing is a safety culture and risk perception survey. That’s to get some foundational information about how researchers view lab safety, the safety culture at their place of work, and risk perception in academic settings and in industry. We want to make this a comparative study so that we can understand how people are thinking about lab safety and lab safety practices in very different environments. The assumption is that risk perception and lab safety culture are much more attuned and in a more advanced state in industry than in academia. But we could be totally wrong, or there could be a lot of variability that puts that assumption into question. But we need the data in order to address that.

Q: What are some of the tools currently developed and available to the users?

A: [Gibson]: We put together a laboratory hazard assessment tool that looks at all the risks associated with the laboratory and must be completed by every PI on campus. It’s a survey to identify all the hazards that are present in their laboratories, which are divided into chemical, biological, radiological, physical, laser and nanomaterials. We then rank them according to quantitative analysis of the risks associated with those laboratories, and determine which ones are at the highest risk. We go back to those laboratories and provide additional oversight to make sure that they are functioning and operating safely. This tool is online and must be updated annually or whenever there are additions or changes to the activities that occur in that laboratory.

Q: What are the actions to be taken if you find some labs are at risk or noncompliant?

A: [Gibson]: If we find the lab is noncompliant, then we identify what the issues are. During the course of the inspections, our inspectors provide a lot of training, guidance and consultation on how to make improvements. Depending on the severity of the issue, the lab is given 48 hours to make that change, if it’s a critical deficiency. If it is less critical, then it is given 30 days to make the correction.

Q: What has really changed with lab safety in recent years, say in the past five years?

A: [Gibson]: I think that there’s been a lot more awareness over the last few years about the importance of laboratory safety, not only from a standpoint of protecting the health and safety of the laboratory workers, but also from an operational efficiency standpoint. Obviously, a safe and efficient lab improves operations. There’s been a huge amount of interest in the Center’s activities from research institutions both private and public, biopharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, and regulatory agencies because obviously safety impacts institutions throughout the world.

A: [Wayne]: There has been an incredible enhancement in awareness of PIs, lab managers and researchers as to what the safety regulations are. Up until recently, we were fairly naïve and thought that we were managing our laboratories in a safe way, but we weren’t really getting optimal guidance on this. Very quickly we started getting enhanced guidance on lab safety regulations that are both state and federally mandated. And I think that we’re ahead of the game compared to other universities because we have this close working relationship between our laboratory inspectors and the lab managers, which makes a difference.

Q: Has technology played a role in these changes?

A: [Gibson]: Technology is obviously making things a lot easier. The laboratory hazards assessment tool is now Web-based. We’re beta testing electronic lab inspections, whereby we take computers and tablets into the field and perform inspections electronically so that information can be downloaded via the Web and can populate a database, which then automatically puts in recommendations for corrective action. It really streamlines the inspection process and makes it much shorter, which allows us to do more inspections and to interface more with our researchers. We’re hoping to develop some applications for laboratory safety that people can use on mobile devices and smart phones. Also in our training we’re developing videos and making them available through YouTube for institutions throughout the world. We’re trying to make these really interesting and innovative so that they capture the interest of the researchers and students. We want to make as much use of technology as we possibly can.

A: [Wayne]: One of the things that I’ve been working on is creating a campus-wide researcher database that will have everything a PI, lab manager and researcher needs to know. All the information on training—what you need, how to get it, where to get it, if it’s offered online or in a class, what training you have done, when you did it, and when you need to do it again—all this will be logged in there. We’re designing it so that it can be tailored for each laboratory, and we’re hoping to beta test that in a few months. We’re going to be publishing our studies in the peerreviewed journals and then putting links to that information on our website so that people can find it more readily.

Q: Where do you see your Center two or three years from now?

A: [Gibson]: The way we’re going to measure success is through publications, and we’re certainly hoping to have some very good publications out there regarding laboratory safety and effective programs. We can put those into practice and eventually have an impact on the safety culture and on reducing the potential for injuries and accidents in laboratories. Once the literature’s out there, researchers are going to be reviewing this and recognizing that these things are, in fact, more than anecdotal evidence. They’re actually empirically based, and we think that’s going to be effective at creating change.

A: [Wayne]: The long-term goal of the Center is to be a repository for peer-reviewed data and best practices, not just coming out of UCLA, but globally. We really want it to be a global resource for best practices based on empirical information so that there’s easy access to this material. What I keep hearing over and over again is that different institutions around the country, around the world, have a lot of data that has not been mined or analyzed. We want to make information available so that people can make more intelligent decisions about how to protect themselves from potential hazards and risks in the laboratory.