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Preventing Lab Accidents: Expert Strategies for a Safer Workspace

Behind the scenes of effective lab safety programs with Dr. Robert Emery

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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How does your lab approach near misses and safety incidents? In this Q&A with Robert Emery, vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management for The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and member of Lab Manager’s lab safety editorial advisory board, he shares valuable lessons from his career, highlights the collaborative nature of effective safety programs, and provides practical advice for establishing a robust safety culture.

Q: What do you wish more people knew/understood about laboratory safety?

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A: Effective lab safety programs are focused on prevention, so in the world of safety, it’s a good day when “nothing happens”. But, as a profession, we need to do a better job of describing and articulating all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to “make nothing happen”. All parties involved in this endeavor would benefit from a firm understanding of this.

Headshot of Robert Emery
Robert Emery

Q: What’s the biggest lab safety-related lesson you’ve learned in your career so far?

A: In my 42-year career I’ve learned that lab safety is really a team effort. Lab safety does not merely consist of a safety person proclaiming some rules or regulations. Rather, it’s working with the team in the lab to develop both understanding and trust. Through this collaborative approach, a true culture of safety can be established.

Q: What does a day in the life look like for you as a professor of occupational health?

A: I start each day with scanning the news feeds to see if any issues are rattling up that may impact us or our profession. From there I check the e-mails and schedule regarding faculty meetings, student meetings and the like. The most enjoyable part of the day is meeting with energetic students who are excited about our research and how to actually accomplish it so that the information gained can be added to the safety profession’s body of knowledge.

Q: What advice can you give someone looking to establish a better culture of safety within their laboratory? 

A: Go and personally meet with the lab personnel in their workspace and listen to them. Only through working collaboratively can we truly achieve a solid safety culture.

Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work? 

A: I grew up playing hockey and still do even at age 65. We have grandkids coming along, so that keeps us busy too.

Dr. Robert Emery is vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management for The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and professor of occupational health at the University of Texas School of Public Health. He has over 40 years of experience in health and safety and holds master’s degrees in health physics and environmental sciences, and a doctorate in occupational health. Bob is unique in that he possesses national board certification in all of the main areas of health & safety;

  • Health physics [Certified Health Physicist, CHP], 
  • Industrial hygiene [Certified Industrial Hygienist, CIH], 
  • Biological safety [Certified Biological Safety Professional, CBSP], 
  • Occupational safety [Certified Safety Professional, CSP], 
  • Hazardous materials management [Certified Hazardous Materials Manager, CHMM], 
  • Security [Certified Protection Professional, CPP],        
  • Risk management [Associate in Risk Management, ARM]. 

Bob is the author of over 100 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and reports on practical health and safety topics and makes frequent presentations on such issues at the local, national, and international level.