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UCLA

Safety First

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By Dan Gordon '85, Illustrations by Matthew Hollister

Published Oct 1, 2011 12:00 AM


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In 2008, a tragic accident in a campus lab profoundly shook the Bruin community. In response, UCLA didn't just revise its policies; it innovated, so much so that the university has become a go-to training resource on lab safety for other institutions, regulatory agencies, private research operations and trade organizations. And the new, Westwood-based University of California Center for Laboratory Safety is the first of its kind in the country.

With their petri dishes and test tubes, their microscopes and pipettes, those who toil for long hours on laboratory benches growing bacteria, mixing chemicals and splitting atoms strike many non-science types as an unusual and somewhat mysterious breed.

And yet, it would be hard to overstate the societal impact of basic science — research designed to advance the frontiers of knowledge, often with no obvious connection to a real-world application. Indeed, virtually every advance in health and technology since World War II can be traced to fundamental discoveries that came out of scientific laboratories.

Because industry has little financial motivation to invest in research whose commercial value isn't yet apparent, the lion's share of basic science in the United States occurs through government funding of university labs — and few basic science enterprises can match up to UCLA, which has brought in more than $1 billion in research dollars each of the last two fiscal years, the bulk of it to support laboratory studies. The approximately 4,000 labs across campus represent a rich source for ideas, talent, intellectual property and economic growth, fueling diverse industries that bring billions of dollars into the state and create tens of thousands of jobs.

But on Dec. 29, 2008, one of these labs was the site of a tragic accident. In the Molecular Sciences Building a 23-year-old staff research assistant, Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, was working with t-butyl lithium, a highly flammable compound that spontaneously burns upon exposure to air. According to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), which investigated the incident, the plunger on the syringe Sangji was using became dislodged and the compound ignited, engulfing her clothing. Cal/OSHA concluded that the lack of a lab coat was the most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji's death from the injuries 18 days later.

The tragedy placed the issue of laboratory safety under national scrutiny that only intensified after two subsequent incidents — in January 2010, a Texas Tech University graduate student lost three fingers of his left hand after an explosion during a chemical experiment, and last April a Yale undergraduate died of asphyxiation in a machine-related accident within a chemistry lab.

Responding to Tragedy

At UCLA, "the accident had a profound impact on the university and certainly on our department," says James Gibson, director of the Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S), which oversees a comprehensive program of safety training, outreach and inspections of campus labs. "Given that our mission is to protect the health and safety of the campus community, it made us rethink the way we approach things."

The change emanating from that rethinking has been so dramatic that, at a time when research universities, government regulators and industry continue to grapple with how to make labs safer, UCLA has emerged as a leader.

In recent months, dozens of universities, regulatory agencies, private research operations and trade organizations have sought information or requested permission to use various elements of UCLA's lab-safety programs, including a laboratory-hazard assessment tool and lab-safety training videos produced by Gibson's department in the months after the accident. "To have broad oversight over lab safety in a decentralized and complex university environment is a huge challenge," says David Acker, associate director of safety and health programs at Auburn University, who requested and received permission to use the lab-safety training videos. "Being able to offer the information and high-quality resources that UCLA has is very helpful."

Gibson himself has been in great demand on the speaking circuit, sharing UCLA's experience on other campuses and at meetings of organizations and agencies that have included the National Academy of Sciences, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the American Chemical Society. And last March, UCLA solidified its leadership position by launching the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, a first-of-its-kind effort to promote research and develop best practices on safety in labs at UCLA and across the country. The new center has drawn interest and support from scientific leaders in government and private industry, as well as academia.

"I really admire how UCLA's EH&S colleagues were able to face up to such a tragic accident, take the hard-learned lessons, share freely with fellow professionals and take their campus safety program to a new height," says Samuel C.T. Yu D.Env. '92, associate director of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Office of Health, Safety and Environment, who met Gibson after the UCLA EH&S director had given a talk at the Campus Safety, Health and Environmental Management Association's annual conference in New Orleans in 2009. "With the establishment of the center," Yu adds, "they are going to be a leader in promoting and improving campus safety across the country and reaching to different parts of the world."

Building a Better Lab

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Campus leadership moved swiftly after the tragedy. The initial concern was to prevent a second accident in the immediate aftermath. A team that included Gibson and other EH&S staff as well as fire marshals conducted an intensive inspection throughout the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and corrective actions were taken based on their findings.

At the same time, Chancellor Gene Block established a campus wide Laboratory Safety Committee consisting of research faculty, administrators and safety regulators, and charged the committee with assessing the state of laboratory safety on campus and making recommendations for improvements. The committee issued a report in July 2009 calling for a variety of measures that touched on everything from beefed-up accountability and oversight, expanded outreach and training, and improved laboratory design to the development of a stronger "culture of safety … as an inextricable component of all laboratory activities."

By the time the report was issued, vast changes were already well under way. In March 2009, EH&S issued the Laboratory Hazard Assessment Tool, a user-friendly guide to assist lab managers in identifying hazards and quantifying risk levels and protective measures needed based on the chemicals and equipment they use. The tool, since placed online, must be completed by each lab and submitted to EH&S annually, as well as updated whenever there is a significant change in activities.

Safety in the Details

EH&S also began a major overhaul of its compliance inspections, which increased from 365 in 2007, the year before the tragedy, to nearly 2,400 in 2010. A revised inspection checklist includes 60 new items, 23 of which require corrective action within 48 hours if a lab is found to be out of compliance (all other re-inspections occur within 30 days). Reports are now issued to lab managers on the next business day so that any violations can be addressed immediately. Late last year, EH&S also began conducting surprise inspections for labs with a large number of violations, as well as those that had left deficiencies uncorrected at the time of the first follow-up.

In February 2010, a new policy was enacted making personal protective equipment such as full-length pants and close-toed shoes, protective gloves, eye protection and flame-resistant laboratory coats a requirement for personnel working with certain materials (previously, compliance with these guidelines had been voluntary) as identified in the Laboratory Hazard Assessment Tool. By the summer, EH&S had begun conducting unannounced inspections to ensure that labs were complying with the new policy.

And by the end of 2010, a new policy was in place for the safe storage, use, handling and disposal of particularly hazardous substances. The list of particularly hazardous substances includes more than 100 chemicals that have been identified by state or federal regulators as carcinogenic or reproductive toxins. The list includes chemicals commonly used in laboratories, such as formaldehyde, benzene, cadmium and tamoxifen, as well as chemicals found in many medicine cabinets, including acetylsalicyclic acid — better known as aspirin.

That list is constantly evolving, and even the most seasoned scientists are not always aware that what they are working with might fit the bill. "It's impossible for researchers to know everything, especially with all of the changes that have been implemented," says Nancy Wayne, associate vice chancellor for research overseeing lab safety, a position created last year to enhance coordination between faculty researchers and campus regulators. "I don't know any lab manager who doesn't want to work in a safe environment. The issue is not recognizing when a regulation is being violated, and that's where the inspections serve as an educational opportunity."

Reaching Out, Retraining & Rethinking

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Beyond the informal education provided by inspectors, outreach and training in laboratory safety has become far more rigorous — from the faculty principal investigators who oversee the labs down to the thousands of undergraduate student volunteers. In 2010, 11,392 lab personnel completed classroom lab-safety training and 6,631 completed online lab-safety training — a 25-fold increase over 2007.

Instead of offering training on a quarterly basis, EH&S now offers courses every week, along with special sessions based on demand. In addition to the in-person sessions, many resources are now online, including a comprehensive lab-safety manual and a chemical hygiene plan, as well as the videos on liquid pyrophorics, fire safety and other topics that have drawn so much outside interest.

All laboratory personnel are required to attend an in-class, lab-safety fundamentals session before they start, and documentation of training by both EH&S and lab managers has become much more stringent, Gibson says. In addition, principal investigators now receive in-depth education specific to their work.

"That training is really helpful in informing faculty about regulatory requirements and their responsibilities," says Hilary Godwin, a professor in the School of Public Health who, in addition to running her own toxicology lab, is vice chair of the new UC Center for Laboratory Safety's advisory board. "But it's also critical as a way of changing the culture, because if we want the importance of safety to be reinforced throughout the labs, the PIs have to be on board."

As much as anything else, the Laboratory Safety Committee report stressed the importance of a "top-down culture of safety consciousness" emphasizing group responsibility, from the chancellor to research administrators and from the faculty who run the labs to all of the personnel who set foot in them. And in that regard, Chancellor Block — who still manages a working lab and has faculty appointments in psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, as well as integrative biology and physiology — has set the tone, attending PI trainings and accompanying EH&S staff on the initial unannounced inspections to ensure compliance with the new personal protective-equipment requirements.

"The biggest factor in changing the safety culture has been the direct and active role played by the chancellor and vice chancellor for research, demonstrating their commitment to laboratory safety at the university," says Gibson.

For Jane P. Chang, associate dean for research and physical resources at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, one of the key aspects of the safety culture is simply enhanced awareness resulting from increased accountability and training. "Everyone agrees safety is important, but if you're not thinking about it you can take it for granted, and that's when preventable incidents are more likely to occur," she says.

Making safe practices the norm will have a ripple effect, Chang suggests. "Everyone now knows that if you are in a lab environment handling chemicals, radiation or other potential hazards, you must have the proper personal protective equipment," she says. "If you see everyone wearing a lab coat, you feel naked without one. If everyone looking at you has safety glasses, you understand that's important."

Answers in the Center

At all research universities, there is some degree of natural tension between the regulators and the regulated. Many research faculty are concerned that the substantial increase in paperwork and documentation takes time away from scholarly pursuits. Wayne, a professor of physiology who manages a lab of her own, is spearheading an effort to decrease the administrative burden by developing a campus wide database that would provide "one-stop shopping" for lab managers and principal investigators to tap into what they need for every lab member.

Wayne has also heard questions from faculty about whether the increased regulations will have the desired effect. In fact, many safety practices in labs are driven more by theory and logic than empirical evidence. That's where the UC Center for Laboratory Safety comes in. Among its initial tasks will be to study the impact of the enhanced inspection, training and regulatory efforts on accidents and injuries at UCLA and other universities, using before-and-after data from multiple campuses.

"Scientists want to see the data showing that if I do this, my students will be safer," says Godwin. "Our goal is to look systematically at what literature is available to document, in a way scientists will find compelling, where there is evidence to support various requirements — and for those cases where [there isn't], to go back and scientifically test them."

Although safety regulators complain about scant published studies on the effectiveness of interventions, everyone keeps records on their own injuries and accidents, so for many of the key questions, those records simply need to be aggregated and analyzed. The offers coming in from academics, government regulators and industry to partner with the UCLA center underscore its importance.

"Most companies don't have the ability to collect enough safety data to be able to draw good statistical conclusions," notes Jeff Foisel, global lab safety and facilities manager for Dow Corning, who reached out to Gibson and Wayne after reading about the center's establishment and has since agreed to serve on the advisory board. "This is a chance to bring together a lot of people and improve the safety culture for laboratories."

"The UC Center for Laboratory Safety is exactly what is needed to improve the ability of university students, faculty and staff to better anticipate, recognize, evaluate, control and confirm that their facilities and actions are adequate to safely manage the hazards they encounter," adds Mark Hoover, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, who has spoken with Gibson about co-sponsoring a workshop next year.

Given the list of hazardous substances and pyrophorics commonly used in labs, the fact that accidents leading to serious injury or death are so rare suggests that the actual risk is low. But that same list is also a reminder of the critical need for proper safety precautions. And Hoover notes that there are challenges unique to research universities, including their multiple sites and decentralized structure, along with the constant influx of students and other personnel new to the labs.

"This was a huge wake-up call," Hoover says of the UCLA accident. "Many institutions might have had an initial response and then gone back to business as usual. There was a sense that someone needed to step up in fostering a more proactive approach, and UCLA, with a compelling story to tell, has taken on that leadership role."

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