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UCLA Chemistry Professor Makes Strides in Improving Laboratory Safety Nationally

The UC center Craig Merlic leads offers many safety recommendations and resources

by Stuart Wolpert-UCLA News Office
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UCLA chemistry professor makes strides in improving laboratory safety nationallyCraig Merlic, left, associate professor of chemistry at UCLA, talks with UCLA graduate student Brett Cory. Merlic heads the UC Center for Laboratory Safety.Photo credit: Penny Jennings/UCLA

As a chemistry graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the 1980s, Craig Merlic saw numerous accidents in his research group’s laboratory.

“We had fires, explosions, people who had chemicals spilled on them,” he recalled. “That had a lasting impact on me and my activities at UCLA.”

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Merlic, an associate professor of chemistry at UCLA who conducts research in organic chemistry and green chemistry, has been committed to laboratory safety for three decades—and not just in his laboratory. He proposed a course, “Safety and Chemical and Biochemical Research,” and taught it at UCLA back in 1991. Later, it became a required course for all chemistry and biochemistry graduate students. Chair of the department’s safety committee for the last eight years, Merlic still teaches it 25 years later.

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Since December, 2014, he has served as executive director of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety. Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences, describes the center’s work under Merlic’s leadership as the “gold standard in laboratory safety in the United States.”

The center works to improve laboratory safety not only on UC campuses, but nationally and beyond. Its mission is to conduct and sponsor research on laboratory safety, develop evidence-based best practices for researchers and to communicate laboratory safety practices. The center also provides small grants for research on laboratory safety.

Merlic advocates a strong safety culture rather than just a “compliance culture.”

“We want to do more than meet the compliance requirements,” Merlic said. “Our goal is to have a very large, positive impact on the culture of safety. We want researchers to do research safely. When safety is fully integrated into research, it just becomes how you do research. If the faculty are engaged in safety, then there are many fewer accidents.

“Safety is a lot like exercise; you can’t think about it just once a month if you want to be safe and fit; you need to integrate it into your daily life,” he said. “Ideally, regulatory compliance is not the end goal of a safety program, but rather the outcome of a strong culture of safety in the workplace.”

Serious laboratory accidents at universities are relatively rare, but Merlic would like that number to be zero.

Why do laboratory accidents occur?

“In science, researchers are inherently doing new things all the time,” he said. “We’re not a production facility; we’re not doing the same thing every day. That novelty—doing experiments in new ways—can lead to hazardous conditions researchers do not always anticipate.”

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The UC center sponsors many activities, including laboratory safety workshops that bring together researchers and environment, health and safety specialists. The most recent workshop was held in April at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Speakers shared ideas to help improve the culture of safety and offered specific ways they can be applied.

The UC center website contains many other valuable resources, including a ‘Lessons Learned’ section on fires/explosions, chemicals, biohazards, safety tips, and other topics.

The center also creates safety training videos with quizzes and certification for researchers. It’s building a library of online safety training courses on topics such as handling carcinogens, laser safety, faculty responsibilities, shipping hazardous materials, and much more. These resources are available to universities nationwide through the Safety Training Consortium created by the center.

Participating universities include UC and Cal State campuses, Princeton University, Emory University, and Northwestern University. Each campus pays a modest annual fee of $2 per researcher to help offset the center’s expenses. Eighty percent of the membership fees go toward creating more online courses; 20 percent cover the center’s administrative expenses. Universities in England and Denmark and companies in the U.S. have expressed interest in participating.

The center, working with UCLA’s environmental health and safety staff, is conducting a study on UCLA’s safety culture, and is analyzing the results of a survey of researchers in UCLA’s 800 laboratories where there are potential hazards. The center will later conduct follow-up surveys to see whether safety has improved. Merlic expects to obtain the first survey results from UCLA in approximately six months. The center is also surveying other universities, including UC Riverside, UC Davis and UC San Francisco, Stanford University, and Northwestern University.

Getting professors and researchers to make assessments of hazards and mitigating the risks will be the next step for the center, Merlic said.

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The University of Hawaii recently hired the center to identify the cause of an explosion in an engineering laboratory that occurred in March. Heading the investigation, Merlic spent three days there visiting campus chemistry laboratories, among other tasks, because he wanted to not only investigate the accident, but also study the university’s safety practices more broadly, with the campus’s consent. In his two-part report to the university, he addresses the specifics of the explosion, which severely injured a postdoctoral researcher, and discusses safety practices.

Since the report was issued July 1, the University of Hawaii has been making numerous laboratory safety changes, Merlic said. Universities nationally have been distributing the report to improve their own safety practices.

An article in the journal Science praised the report as “well worth the wait. … Based on extensive forensic testing, its analysis of why the tank of pressurized oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide blew up is thorough, precise, and illuminating. Its recommendations for how UH and other universities can prevent similar calamities in the future are thoughtful, detailed, and explicit. … Beyond that, there’s a penetrating and insightful critique of UH’s deficient safety regime, plus detailed suggestions for attacking its cultural and systemic problems.”

One of the recommendations he made to the University of Hawaii and presented at the April workshop is for federal granting agencies to require researchers to address in grant proposals what hazards can potentially arise from the research, how they can be mitigated and how research teams can be trained to conduct the research safely.

Merlic gives about 20 safety talks nationally a year and also visits some of the laboratories where he speaks to get a sense of the research culture. He spends at least 20 percent of his time on safety issues and meets weekly with Imke Schroeder, the center’s research project manager and an adjunct associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at UCLA. He also consults with Nancy Wayne, chair of the center’s advisory board, a UCLA professor of physiology in the David Geffen School of Medicine and an associate vice chancellor for research focused on laboratory safety. Merlic also works with UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and Ann Karagozian, interim vice chancellor for research.

How is UCLA doing in its efforts to create a culture of laboratory safety?  “We’re not perfect, and we have more to do, but we are far ahead of many campuses across the nation in creating a culture of safety,” said Merlic, who is still analyzing data from the survey.

Merlic also works with a center at UC Davis that produces software tools to improve laboratory safety. Last year, he led a team of six computer programmers to create a safety software program for the UC system that is modeled on a UCLA laboratory hazards assessment tool. Today, tens of thousands of UC researchers use this program. He plans to start work on another software program on laboratory safety soon.