The death of Sheharbano Sangji in 2008, following a fire in the chemistry department at the University of California, Los Angeles, triggered calls to improve academia’s safety standards not just at UCLA, but across the United States. Similar concerns were voiced last year when a young undergraduate student, Michele Dufault, died at Yale University. And when the US Chemical Safety Board reviewed the state of academic lab safety after a non-fatal accident at TexasTech University in Lubbock in 2009, it concluded that “Safety practices at US universities leave a lot to be desired”.
But for every sober analysis of academia’s safety standards, there was also a riposte: aren’t academics much safer now than they were in the 1950s and 60s? Wouldn’t stringent regulations hamper the freedoms of academic research – and what is the right balance to be struck?
Social scientists have tried to address these questions, but one problem is that, perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t much evidence available on laboratory safety cultures. As a Nature editorial, “Accidents in waiting” noted last year: “For years, environmental health and safety officers have complained that there is no good source of consistent data on laboratory accidents, which could be studied to determine effective safety interventions.”
Now a survey is being launched (press release) to study researchers’ attitudes to lab safety. It has sprung from UCLA’s ‘Center for Laboratory Safety’, which launched in March 2011* and was billed as the first in the US to develop ways to improve scientists’ approach to safety. At the time, many people I spoke to were far from convinced that this centre would have the resources to push the field forwards. (Its launch is just one of the many measures UCLA has taken since Sangji’s death: the university has toughened its safety policies and faced federal fines of some $70,000; while Sangji’s supervisor, the organic chemist Patrick Harran, and the University of California, are currently facing criminal charges).
Still, it is the first international survey I’m aware of that has tried to address the question – so I would encourage readers to spend 15 minutes taking the survey (here). It is anonymous, so no-one can be identified; though there is an option to provide email addresses for follow-up.
Nature Publishing Group (NPG, which publishes this blog along with Nature.com) is joining with UCLA to launch the survey, together with the company BioRAFT, which provides software for safety compliance and itself has investment from Digital Science, owned by NPG’s parent company Macmillan.
*Corrected, 15 June; this article originally erroneously stated ‘last April’.