Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Industrial and Academic Laboratory Safety Practices — Narrowing the Gap

There is a widening gulf between how safety is practiced in industry compared to how it is practiced in research laboratories, especially in academic settings.

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Closing the Gap Between Industrial and Laboratory Safety Practices

A rash of serious incidents has brought the reality of this gulf to light in a tragic way. Issues span a variety of gaps, including organizational buy-in and accountability, oversight of safety programs, and weak or incomplete hazard evaluations. This article will take an in-depth look into these and other issues and discuss how you can avoid potentially serious shortfalls in your lab safety programs.

An unexplained upsurge of research laboratory accidents during the past few years has spotlighted a dangerous phenomenon: a seeming lack of adequate safety programs in these settings, particularly in nonindustrial research laboratories. In brief, we have had fatal fires (UCLA researcher Sheri Sangji1), serious explosions (Texas Tech2), and horrific deadly accidents (Yale Physics Lab Shop3). Why is this? Why are we lacking a strong safety culture in these settings? What do we do to improve it? Are there better ways to instill a culture of safety where it is missing?

Get training in Life Safety and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Life Safety Course

The huge disparity between safety cultures and practices in industrial versus nonindustrial settings is indisputable. In a recent letter published in Chemical & Engineering News, the chief technology officer at Dow Chemical, the senior vice president of Corning Global Research, and the vice president of Dupont’s Global Research and Development, all members of the American Chemical Society’s Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, had this to say about the wide gulf in safety cultures:

“The facts are unequivocal. Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab. There have been serious accidents in academic labs in recent years—including fatalities—that could have been prevented with the proper use of protective equipment and safer laboratory procedures.”4

We have to agree wholeheartedly with that last statement. All incidents and injuries can be prevented, even when performing cutting-edge research. The questions are: How much prevention is the right amount and what do those preventive measures look like?

Recent groundbreaking work

A great place to start is the Chemical Safety Board’s report on the Texas Tech explosion. The CSB case report found systemic deficiencies that contributed to that incident, including a lack of safety management accountability and oversight; poor assessment of all hazards, particularly the physical hazards; and a lack of documentation, investigation, and communication of previous incidents.

In another significant report last year, the National Research Council, an independent, nonprofit organization of experts dedicated to improving government decision- making and public policy in all matters of science, engineering, technology, and health, published a treatise on the subject titled “Safe Science.”5 The goal of their report is to promote a better safety culture in nonindustrial research laboratories. Their suggested approach begins by looking at methodologies used in industries such as airlines, healthcare, and manufacturing/production.

We will take a closer look at those two breakthrough publications, but to be fair, when we start to think about how to close the gaps and build a better culture of safety in these nonindustrial research laboratories, we must keep in mind the unique and dynamic nature of the settings. There typically are large flows of new and inexperienced researchers through these labs, resulting in high turnover and a wide range of experience from young researchers just beginning work to seasoned laboratory veterans, something not seen in your average industrial laboratory setting. This same problem is also encountered by the changing of principal investigators and scientists as researchers visit from other institutions and some pursue the quest for tenure. All this turnover and varying lengths of stay impact training and make maintaining a strong safety culture a challenge. And finally, the most sacred expectancy of all, well-known leading researchers expect a high degree of autonomy and little, if any, infringement on their intellectual and academic freedoms. When you combine high turnover and a resistance to shackling freedoms with an all-too-prevalent attitude of knowledge superiority, you have a very tough nut to crack.

Telling survey statistics

In 2012, the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety teamed with the Nature Publishing Group and BioRAFT, a developer of university laboratory management software, and conducted one of the largest surveys of lab safety culture to date.6 Almost 2,400 respondents participated; 62 percent were from the US and another 21 percent were from the UK and EU, 90 percent of which were from academic research laboratories. Although a great majority of respondents (85 percent) agreed with this statement—“appropriate safety measures in my lab have been taken to protect employees from injury”—a deeper look hints this may not be the case. Here are a few examples.

A basic tenant of lab research is “never work alone.” Yet the survey showed that only 7 percent of respondents reported this never happens in their lab. Thirty-five percent said it occurred daily and 80 percent said it was at least a weekly occurrence. The primary piece of personal protective equipment is the lab coat. Yet less than half (46 percent) said that they wear one even though their work requires one at all times. Forty percent disagreed with the statement that their supervisor, lab manager, or PI regularly checks for safe performance of lab duties and proper use of safety equipment. Finally, almost half of all respondents (45 percent)—and 55 percent of those working in large labs (20 to 100 workers)—agreed that “overall safety could be improved in their workplace.”

What to do?

We have shown that changing the safety culture in nonindustrial research settings presents unique challenges. These have been clearly identified and well documented due to recent severe and deadly accidents. If you want to be the impetus of change or perhaps begin to elevate the safety culture in your facility, we encourage you to start by becoming familiar with the current knowledge base. The Chemical Safety Board’s Texas Tech report identified six key lessons learned from that incident. We have stated them here for you in terms of action items:

  1. You must go beyond OSHA’s Laboratory Standard (29CFR 1910.1450) and ensure your safety management plan addresses all hazards, especially physical hazards and physical hazards of chemicals.

  2. Your institutional chemical hygiene plan and standard operating procedures must verify that all research-specific hazards are fully evaluated and mitigated.

  3. You must recognize the lack of current standards and guidance on hazard evaluation and mitigation and risk assessment addressing the unique issues in nonindustrial research labs. Most are specific to industrial settings and not fully transferrable to your environment.

  4. Written protocols and training specific to the research are absolutely necessary.

  5. Your institution’s organizational structure must ensure direct reporting from the safety inspector/auditor to an individual/office with “authority to implement safety improvements.”

  6. Previous incidents and near-misses must be documented, tracked, and communicated in order to provide education and improvement to safety programs.

The National Research Council’s Safe Science goes even deeper into what safety entails and how we shift from mere compliance to promoting a strong and positive culture of safety. This report discusses the different safety systems and cultures and looks at the knowledge base, including those from aviation, healthcare, and nuclear industries. The characteristics of nonindustrial organizations and their roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities are examined. The knowledge gaps for these settings are explored and ideas to address safety dynamics are presented.

Safe Science is a comprehensive and excellent review of safety culture and a must read for laboratory managers and principal investigators alike. It concluded with 15 findings, nine conclusions, and nine recommendations. We’ll summarize the recommendations for you.

  1. 1. Leadership. Top management must actively demonstrate and show ongoing commitment that safety is a core value of the institution.

  2. Performance Linked. Promoting a strong, positive safety culture should be one of the criteria for promotions, tenure, and salary decisions.

  3. Resource Based. Identify and design research that can be done safely based on limited and constrained resources.

  4. Risk Management. Develop risk management plans with input from all stakeholders. Direct resources and establish policies to maximize a strong safety culture.

  5. Teamwork. Use support organizations (e.g., Environmental Health and Safety), teams, and groups to build a safety culture.

  6. Teamwork 2. Provide means and encourage collaboration between researchers, principal investigators, and EH&S personnel.

  7. Review. Establish and require incident and near-miss reporting. Document and centralize information. Communicate lessons learned.

  8. Evaluate. Establish and require research-specific hazard analyses.

  9. Training. Develop and implement initial, ongoing, and periodic training to ensure understanding of associated hazards and risks. Ensure the ability to use proper protective measures and mitigate potential harm.

What is more important than ensuring research is performed in a safe manner and that workers leave at day’s end as healthy as when they arrived that morning? We have a duty to instill the mind-set that if you cannot do the research using the best safety practices, then you shouldn’t do it at all. We all need to share the best ideas and best practices when it comes to safety. And, we should always strive to ensure that all our employees embrace the very best safety practices.


  1. “Deadly UCLA lab fire leaves haunting questions,” Christensen, Kim, Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2009.,0,3624028.story 
  2. Texas Tech University Chemistry Lab Explosion, US Chemical Safety Board. Washington, D.C., 2010. 
  3. “Yale Student Killed as Hair Gets Caught in Lathe,” Foderaro, Lisa, New York Times. April 13, 2011. 
  4. “The Importance of Teaching Safety,” William F. Bandolzer, et al., Chemical & Engineering News. Vol. 91, Issue 18. May 6, 2013. 
  5. Safe Science, National Research Council, National Academies of Sciences. Washington, D.C., 2014. 
  6.  “Laboratory Safety Culture Survey 2012—Draft Report,” Laura Harper and Fiona Watt, Nature Publishing Group. Lindon, UK. September 2012.