Lab safety and who is responsible

Dec 28 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In what is being viewed as a surprising move, felony charges were leveled against a UCLA professor and members of the UC administration as part of an investigation into the 2008 death of Sheharbano Sangji. The research assistant died after a lab accident left her with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over much of her body.

While a tragic accident, investigation found that several safety precautions were not taken that may have mitigated the damage. Not only were some of the experimental procedures in conflict with recommendations for handling the dangerous chemicals Sangji was working with, she was also not wearing a lab coat or eye protection. The legal action is largely being spurred by the fact that UCLA safety inspectors noted over a dozen safety infractions, including lack of personal protective clothing, only two months prior to the accident. Despite the warnings, no action was taken by the lab to correct the issues.

Obviously the level of risk is going to vary substantially from one lab to the next. A chemistry lab might be expected to contain more dangerous chemicals than an ecology lab, for instance. However, that doesn't mean that there should be variable levels of attention paid to safety. But the issue is always enforcement. Where does it come from? Who is ultimately responsible.

This was an active discussion on twitter (yes, I'm selling out that fast) this morning with @biochembelle, @Chemjobber and @piperjklemm. Chemjobber has already posted on the specifics of the case, but I am interested in discussing how we avoid this kind of failure in the lab.

Everyone has a story about their safety office indicating that they are either too militant or don't know their asses from their clipboards. Hell, I've even written about this topic. Yes, there may be cases when they dispense less than wise information, but when it comes to violations of the safety rules at your institution, PIs do so at their own risk. The UCLA case is making this point loud and clear.

As a PI I can attest that I will absolutely not catch every safety violation in my own lab. Why? because I spend more time in my office than in my lab, but at least two orders of magnitude and I haven't yet set up the webcam in there *puts on ToDo list*. So what can I do to make sure no one is mouth pipetting phenol at the bench with no pants on? Make it clear that I value safety by the following:

1) Assign one lab member (I don't have a tech) to stay on top of MSDSs, SOPs and waste, then check in with this person at lab meetings.

2) Point out any safety issues I do see when in the lab and bring it up at lab meeting.

3) Hold a meeting after our annual Safety and Risk seminar to make sure we are all on the same page and to discuss and changes.

4) Listen to anyone who has a concern. Ignoring a valid concern voiced by any lab member sends the message that you are not serious about lab safety or don't care about the safety of certain members.

5) Finally, the buck stops with the PI. As pointed out by @biochembelle, lateral or bottom up enforcement of safety rules is rarely effective. If you want you lab to take it seriously, the PI has to be the lab enforcer of safety. A senior lab member can be empowered to do this, but the PI needs to make it clear that it is important.

Or risk jail.

43 responses so far

  • biochembelle says:

    A senior lab member can be empowered to do this, but the PI needs to make it clear that it is important.

    I think PIs should also be very clear that "pulling rank" doesn't fly when it comes to lab safety. Seniority doesn't grant exemption from safety screw ups - and just because you've been doing something this way for years and never had a problem doesn't mean you get to continue doing it that way if it poses a safety risk.

    IMO, when it comes down to it, lab safety is everyone's responsibility, and as such, each lab member should respect and address concerns raised, regardless of seniority.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Amen. I can attest to PIs who assign people in their labs to keep tabs on safety, and then check in with them constantly. In my PhD lab we worked with a somewhat serious pathogen, so when it came time to have a safety inspection, I typed our protocol to dispose of said pathogen responsibly and what the lab was supposed to do to keep things safe. I met with a safety officer twice and we went over what I did. This person then wrote a long letter to my PI pointing the good stuff and the not so good stuff where there was room for improvement. In addition, my PI checked in with me until we crossed off every point. I never got sick working with said pathogen *knocks on wood* and none of the other members did either (pheww). In my postdoc lab, the lab tech kept tabs on everything safety-related, but we'd try to chip in whenever possible by disposing of stuff where it was supposed to be disposed of.

    At my current place we have to get safety certifications, and I'm working on mine (slowly, I hate taking tests). But more importantly, I consult with our local and general safety officers, talk to postdocs and grad student who come by the lab about disposing and handling hazmat properly. I don't want my place of work to injure anyone, or to make them sick, or to expose the general population to crap. It is my responsibility to make sure we're doing things right. But, at the same time, I can't keep eyes on everyone all the time, the best I can do is to tell them when I see them, and show less experienced people how to do things responsibly, hoping that when I'm not around, the follow my example.

  • neuromusic says:

    Regarding #1...

    As a grad student "lab member", I would take issue if you assigned me as the lab "safety coordinator". Unless it came with a $4k signing bonus and per diem for gas.( Or perhaps as an alternative to a TAship.

    It's not my responsibility. It's not what my NSF stipend is funding me to do. I'm funded to do research and that is an administrative task that you should have a lab manager or tech doing if you can't do it yourself.

  • proflikesubstance says:


    As a PI without current funds for a tech, I would "take issue" with your response. It's a lab, and certain things need to get done. If there is no tech around they still need to get done, regardless of your entitlement. If you brought in your own money and you are using it to fund your own research, then fine. But if I wrote the grant that is funding your ass and paying for your work, then you can take on some minor community responsibility while I spend my time making sure you can travel and get paid.

  • Natalie says:

    Timely post. The dean meets with science staff once every two years (yup) to check in, and two weeks ago the single topic that dominated the three hour meeting was the ineffective safety procedures and the lack of followup at our university, both by particularly flippant PIs and also the university's facilities management.

    As a technician working with undergrads, the idea that the PI next door to me routinely blocks the fire exit with equipment or stores unmarked acid in cabinets above someone's head is 1. disgusting as fuck and 2. frustrating that nobody has clout or balls to deal with it. The system is broken and we've all expressed the "what will it take..." sentiment. I might forward the post to him just reiterate.

    The lack of resources to fix missing ceiling tiles or crumbling flooring is a whole 'nother issue. I often wonder if the best way to get someone's attention isn't to post a few ill-times images to the university's recruiting website under the heading "things they don't tell you".

  • Jacquelyn says:

    I'm a graduate student funded by an NSF grant, and in my advisor's lab we share lab duties. I've been the lab manager since the lab's formation (six years, through my MS and PhD degrees), and one of my early activities was ordering the equipment and designing lab protocols. I'm also the safety manager. I wasn't paid anything extra for this, but I did it willingly for two reasons:

    1) The selfless reason: In my lab, we've always shared all the duties-- it's unrealistic (particularly in this economic climate) to expect that every lab have a paid lab manager, a web master, a data analyst, etc. The extra tasks are divvied up amongst the lab members, and we all pitch in. It's part of what makes us a community, and not a loose aggregate of random researchers.

    2) The selfish reason: Learning how to build and manage a lab has been an invaluable experience from a professional development perspective. If you're planning on running your own lab someday, it can be a steep learning curve, and when I'm developing classes and writing grants, it'll be nice not to have to figure out mentoring, safety, ordering, and how to draft protocols. Writing grant budgets and start-up fund requests will also be a lot easier now that I know exactly what I need, what works, how much it costs, and where to get it.

  • Michele says:

    In reply to Neuromusic: Even though we had a tech when I was in graduate school, all of us were assigned particular "jobs" as members of the lab, some of those jobs included safety duties. When our tech was pregnant, a graduate student took over the wipe tests for the hot room. In my first industry research setting at a very large R&D organization, the safety inspection committee was a rotating duty held by the permanent scientists in the building. These "administrative" duties are part and parcel of being a scientist.
    You are being trained as a scientist. Maybe one day you will be running your own lab; one of the most valuable things you can learn during your graduate apprenticeship is how to run a lab from the administrative side. Take advantage of any opportunity that your PI gives you to learn about life beyond the bench. It's the only way you will really understand what a research career actually entails.

  • neuromusic says:

    I understand that there are many responsibilities that need to be distributed in labs without techs. I appreciate and embrace the "we're all in it together" approach.

    But if its a task where you would treat an externally funded student differently than an internally funded one, then it sounds a lot less like "we're all in it together" and a lot more like "I'm paying your salary, so you better do what I say".

    I don't think that this is simply my sense of entitlement.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Entirely externally funded people DO have a slightly different standard to them, be they PIs or grad students. My point is that it is not your funding so you can't make the unilateral call how you spend your time. Part of that is being a good lab citizen and part is not punching the gift horse in the mouth with your preconceptions about "your" funding.

  • scicurious says:

    Jaquelyn hit the nail on the head there. If you want the lab to run smoothly, sometimes everyone has to pitch in. We can't all have big labs with lab managers. And a lot of these things make for very educational experiences.

  • becca says:

    "So what can I do to make sure no one is mouth pipetting phenol at the bench with no pants on? "
    AHAHAHAHA! now I wanna try that.

    "It's the only way you will really understand what a research career actually entails."
    Except that most people only understand what one type of research career actually entails, if that. There are, of course, a number of research careers (not in academia), where SOPs and GMPs and OSHA actually have some damn clout, and such matters would not be left to n00blets.

    Serious question for PIs- when was the last time you tested the eyewash station in your lab? Do you even know (without checking the sheet) who does it? Did you even appoint someone else to do it when that person was last off for a break/out of town/moved out of the lab?
    Would you know if someone in your lab was autoclaving EtBr waste, or making some other common mixup on proper material disposal?

  • Anon says:

    That external fellowship might be paying for your stipend and tuition, but is it paying for your supplies? Equipment? Facilities?

    If you are using the equipment and facilities, then regardless of who is paying for it you have an obligation to help maintain them. So it would be reasonable to assign you some duties for safety, clean-up, or maintenance. If you are working with people in the lab and benefiting from their expertise, it would be reasonable to expect you to help disseminate information resulting from the group's work, so somebody might be assigned webmaster duty. And so forth. Obviously it would be unreasonable to assign you all of these duties, but assigning you one of them, in an equitable manner, is quite reasonable.

  • neuromusic says:


    My point originally with bringing up my NSF $ is not to emphasize "my money" vs "your money", but to emphasize that there are restrictions from granting institutions on what types of activities grand students are funded to do (whether it's your money or mine). I happen to be funded by an NSF stipend (which is why I mentioned it), but I would feel equally comfortable saying "It's not what your NIH/NSF/DARPA/HMMI grant is funding me to do."

    Given the liability issue, Lab Safety Coordinator (as you've described it) doesn't sound to me like a task that granting agencies are funding grad students to do, especially if by agreeing to be your LSC, I could risk felony charges if one of my peers dies due to safety violations. That's a different level of responsibility, regardless of where the money is coming from. I'm perfectly happy pitching in with lab cleaning, safety checks, ordering supplies, etc.

    But do to the liability highlighted in the case and your post, this is a different level of responsibility.

  • neuromusic says:

    And for the record, I'm also in a lab w/o a lab manager and lab responsibilities are distributed, no matter who has what funding.

  • arclight says:

    It's very interesting to see how organizations without a strong safety culture deal with the process of trying to build one. I work as nuclear safety analyst, I work with nuclear plants around the world and I'm impressed by the consistent focus on personal and group safety at every one of them from the plant manager on down. It is inconvenient and irritating at times but it is an accepted shared responsibility, the cost of doing business.

    Half our company is engaged in chemical testing and a large chunk of our business is calorimetry, looking at runaway reactions sometimes with pretty nasty substances. As a commercial firm, I don't think we're too far from a research lab in many respects.

    In our shop, an attitude like that of neuromusic's would get his ass walked to the door, full stop. It's likely the president of the company would do it himself and nobody in the firm would shed a tear. We don't want to work with people who we don't trust to look out for themselves or each other. Good riddance and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.

    Rather than look for a way to make that shared responsibility for safety more palatable (e.g. have it rotate within the group on an annual or per-semester basis), we get the common and destructive "not my job" canard. If the PI says it's your job, it is. It's not like she told you to wash her car.

    And let's take this line of thinking a bit further: "I don't want any of my grant wasted on administrative crap like safety training & personal protective equipment. That money is for research only." I would hope any PI with that attitude would get a long talking-to by the dean and the safety department. Would you work for a PI with that attitude?

    Natalie seems to work near one. Here's a tactic: take pictures, print them out , and send them anonymously to the campus safety department with a note: "Deal with this or these pictures go to the media." Two vital parts of safety culture are not shooting the messenger and severely disciplining messenger-shooters. If your organization won't do the right thing, bad PR is one of the few things they pay attention to. That tactic likely wouldn't work in private industry but the media loves a 'school ignores dangers to students' story. Just make sure you store the original files somewhere unlikely to be turned up with a search warrant in case the institution retaliates. Sick, but it happens.

    Here's a free bit of advice: watch the Chemical Safety Board's video on university lab safety before claiming it's "not your job." That excuse tends to show you in a great light during the post-accident interviews with administrators, regulators, and lawyers.

  • arclight says:

    And while it's easy to hammer on neuromusic's initially-poorly-articulated point, he correctly points out that safety culture needs to be addressed above the PI level. Neither he nor the PI should be guessing who is paying for this role or what the liability of that role is. I have no easy answer as to how to get a university president or chancellor's ear or how to have safety take precedence over money when dealing with irresponsible PIs. It shouldn't take maimed or dead grad students to prod the administration into action.

    Regardless, waiting for a solution to come down from on high doesn't help you or your coworkers. Do the right thing, prod management, and document it all in case it all goes south. It's harder for them to scapegoat you if you have a paper trail and a history of trying to do the right thing.

  • Ink says:

    This is really sobering! I had not really thought about the potential dangers you ever feel nervous about doing the work?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Given the liability issue, Lab Safety Coordinator (as you've described it) doesn't sound to me like a task that granting agencies are funding grad students to do, especially if by agreeing to be your LSC, I could risk felony charges if one of my peers dies due to safety violations.

    At no point did I ever state that I hand out clipboards and official titles to which liability can be attributed. In fact, I made it very clear that the buck stops with the PI. Period.

    Everyone in the lab has some communal job and staying "on top of MSDSs, SOPs and waste" is a key one. That doesn't mean that person is responsible for group safety in any way shape or form - the job is 95% paperwork and 5% reminding people to call for waste pick up. It is less onerous than being in charge of ordering and I don't hand out gas money for that either.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    This is really sobering! I had not really thought about the potential dangers you ever feel nervous about doing the work?

    I would be more worried about the propensity for writers to go batty, Ink.

  • Chemjobber says:

    Before I forget, great post from the PI's perspective. I'd feel safer working in your lab.

  • leigh says:

    my external funding comes with the implications that i fully participate in the day to day operations of the place where i do my work. now, that cashmoney does not come from any of the abovementioned places but you would all recognize if i were to disclose my funding source. nowhere am i actively prohibited from pitching in to the lab community organization/chores that simply need to be done in order to keep things running. rather the opposite, in fact. particularly given that without getting said community tasks completed, there would be no lab in which to do that all-important work that you must never be distracted from.

    citing the need to do only what one thinks one is funded to do and nothing more is a thinly veiled excuse at best. it certainly comes off as much worse, and many places would not tolerate that kind of attitude.

  • HCA says:

    I'm reminded of something a zookeeper friend said about working with venomous snakes: "It's not if you get bitten, it's when you get bitten."

    The general concept is that everyone makes mistakes, and random, rare outside circumstances will disrupt things. Maybe the building's fire alarm goes off and startles you while you're mouth-pippetting. Maybe you trip while carrying some corrosive reagent around. Maybe you're just working too late on a deadline and one of the rats slips your grip and sinks its nasty little incisors deep into your hand.

    Accidents *will* happen, even to the best of us. But preparation, forethought, and guidelines are the difference between an accident and a catastrophe.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Alright, just so we're clear, mouth pipetting is never okay.

  • neuromusic says:

    In our shop, an attitude like that of neuromusic's would get his ass walked to the door, full stop. [...] We don't want to work with people who we don't trust to look out for themselves or each other.

    This isn't about whether or not I'm willing to look out for myself or my colleagues.

    Is everyone in the lab expected to keep up to date on safety protocols, make sure people aren't mouth-pipetting, and generally keep an eye out each other? I'm game. Are specific safety-related tasks being distributed to different individuals, where Joe keeps an eye on the waste and Sara makes sure the sharps are in order? I'm also on board with that. Is everyone expected to go above-and-beyond when duty calls in order to keep each other safe? I'm totally there.

    Is one grad student being assigned a set of regular tasks that are critical to the safety of the entire lab and that the PI would normally assign to a lab manager? No thank you. That is an unjust burden to place on a grad student.

    That is what your description sounds like to me... If that doesn't describe the nature of responsibilities, then I would not take issue with you approaching me as a student to do my share of the lab's communal work (indeed, I don't have an issue with any of the tasks that I have been assigned in my own lab). But there is an upper limit.

    My point here is entirely consistent with proflikesubstance's last: If you want you lab to take it seriously, the PI has to be the lab enforcer of safety.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How are the iPad2 and Camaro working out, neuromusic?

  • Mac says:

    What I'm struggling with is a university that seems to actively avoid safety and while I try I have trouble getting any reasonable response. I've dealt with ridiculous issues in terms of lab wiring (please can't I separate the water and electricity?) and other basic lab set-up issues. Does my eyewash work? My eyewash?! In my dreams I have an eyewash. The problem is when I raise these issues I get lectured about how I am overreacting. True I don't have many chemicals in my lab but there are still dangers and I simply cannot seem to get any of the folks in charge to take these issues seriously and help me set up a reasonably safe lab. What to do? Take it the the media? That seems problematic too. I try and make safety part of our lab culture and have done what I can with the resources available to keep my lab safe but without the basic infrastructure it feels like plugging holes in a dyke - any helpful hints of how to get the university to take this seriously (short of sacrificing one of the undergrads)?

  • HCA says:

    Actually, mouth-pipetting is probably the perfect example of why safety regulations and oversight and such are important, and why it's important to come down hard on such behaviors.

    IME, it's not the dependably dangerous things that are the biggest safety hazards, but rather the things that only sporadically cause problems. People mouth-pipette because "I've never had anything bad happen" and "the post-doc I admired at my last lab did it" and "I'm just moving harmless stuff". Then they accidentally suck up something nasty and need to go to the ER. If it were consistently and frequently dangerous, nobody would do it, but because the accidents are infrequent, people get lulled into a false sense of security.

    My best analogy is the snakes from my last lab. The Amazon Tree Boas bit people less often than just about anything else, not because they were nice, but because they were so dependably nasty. The most bites came from the baby Reticulated pythons, because they could be sweet as puppies for weeks, then suddenly lunge from the cage and sink their teeth into your arm. It wasn't that I didn't know they could be nasty, but I also know they can be (mostly) tamed, so long stretches of good behavior lulled me into a false sense of security.

    TL;DR - the biggest problem isn't stuff that's dependably highly dangerous or very safe, but the middle ground where the low frequency of incidents lets people get sloppy and let their guard down. That's where you have to keep an eye on them and make sure nobody slips up.

  • Ink says:

    Good point, PLS! But on the physical side, we only have to worry about paper cuts. Am impressed with your courage in facing numerous dangers on a daily basis.

  • darchole says:

    I'm a tech, and I've worked with some of the people that neuromusic comes off as: a graduate student that says 'that's not research so I'm not doing it', a tech saying 'that's not in my job description', or a PI that says 'do it' without any other information or direction, and I sure as hell don't want to work with any of those. If I'm forced to work with those people I give them as little of my time as possible, since they don't seem to be very respectful of my time or my responsbilities. Yes, it might not be your job, or part of your research, or your responsibility, but if it needs done, and no one else is stepping up to the plate or it's delegated to you? You need to do it, or you've now become the parasite in the lab, taking but not contributing (enough). I do agree with neuromusic that the PI does hold the ultimate responsbility for the people in the lab, but that doesn't automatically include things like autoclaving, which is part of lab safety. I want my PI to get grants and to pay me more than I want them to make sure no one is mouth pipetting in the lab.

  • andre says:

    Great advice from a PI. Having a time during every group meeting to address safety is very useful. We used to keep it anonymous ("I saw someone do X this past week, remember that is unsafe") unless it was severe or repetitive, at which point my boss addressed it for 15 minutes or more to drill the point home and made some ultimatums (while also doing some teaching).

    One other really useful thing done in the lab was a written form addressing specific dangers in our lab. Each student had to sign off that they read it before starting to work for my boss. It gave specific no-nos that were not tolerated (killing sodium with water, heating in a sealed container, peroxides and organics, etc) and some lab guidelines (working alone, horseplay, doing a new procedure, etc) that would be STRICTLY enforced. Copies were also posted around the lab. Violating these rules had penalties ranging from suspension from the lab to immediate termination. Several times I was able to check myself by seeing the sheet and looking it over. Having to read and sign it I'm sure was part "cover your ass" by my PI, but also helped me remember that there were things I was responsible for in the lab.

  • chall says:

    Interesting points PLS.

    As for the "pressing charges" I would think it is partly to investigate who (whom?) is responsible when an accident happens - since no one would argue that this situation started with an accident that lead to a fire....? - and how the outcome can have minimal impact and risks. I'd hope that it leads to the discussion that its probably a part of "PI/Uni needs to inform about the various risks and precautions to take in the lab while working with A, B and G" as well as "ppl in lab are responsible for know what to wear/dress/behave in order to be safe" and then in between there will hopefully not be a big gap ?

    I've never worked with those types of harmful chemicals (flammable over -10C) but have done lots of work with radioactivity (hello I125) and various BSL2/3 microbial agents. In all of those cases I've been tempted/missed to have all the PPE on at some point (disregard safety glasses while working with BSL2 bacteria -according to that uni's saftey rules that was haev to, to protect from spill) and in all instances I'd realised that if indeed something happened to me I'd be to blame since "I didn't take the precautions I should've". Problem with it all? The distinction when I didn't KNOW and when I CHOOSE to not don the PPE completely.

    In general I would be tempted to say that the security check ups are more strict when it comes to "potentail harm to OTHER people (outside uin/lab)" as for example spreading bacteria from your lab to outside and making ppl sick/fire in the lab spreading to the whole building with less focus on "getting small burns on your hands or inhaling phenol and burn your lungs".

    I like the suggestion from andre to have a lab specific form with issues. One of the lab I was in had a list of "old issues in this lab and others with bad outcomes" as a Don't do this! (Remember that methanol and coomassie stain are toxic on skin; do not touch without proper gloves!)

  • Joe says:

    Should I make my lab people wear lab coats? We have them, and I tell everyone to wear them when using phenol, other chemicals, or radioactivity (and they do). But as geneticists we come from a culture that permits open-toed shoes, shorts, etc., and it is rare that wearing a lab coat is necessary or desirable. When you are patching E. coli with toothpicks, you don't need a lab coat or gloves or eye protection. However, your biosafety protocol would not be approved if it did not say you would do this. Our biosafety officer says "Move your lab toward a practice of everyone wearing their lab coats", but I don't know anyone who is doing this.

  • AUUUUGH open-toed shoes. (And I used to work in a mostly-genetics lab, with harmless organisms.... still.)

    There are a lot of problems with lab safety; universities failing to provide appropriate infrastructure, training, or oversight surely accounted for a lot of the problems in my former lab. For example: oxidizers, reducers, and flammable solvents were all stored together in an inadequately-ventilated closed space. (So that the eventual explosion would be more dramatic, no doubt.) The university never called anyone out on it, nor did they provide any storage of any kind (despite taking 68% overhead). Cabinets are surprisingly expensive, too.

    The other problem comes from stupid regulations. We used to get dozens of citations for stuff like "left a tweezers in the sink". If the signal to noise ratio is not good, it's easier to ignore.

    Rad safety, on the other hand, was draconian both in regulation and enforcement. Screw up? Get scrubbed down in the middle of the hallway, inspected by the NRC, get fined to hell and back, and then lose your license. Cheers. The radioactive-undergrad-and-bus incidents still happened, but quite rarely. They also didn't bother with stupid shit like tweezers, unless the tweezers were hot...

    So maybe if government agencies were stricter in their enforcement, universities would be more motivated. Because the NRC is apparently VERY motivating.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There is certainly an issue regarding enforcement and reasonable regulations. The over reaction to certain things leaves the decision of what is important to the PI and interpretations will vary beyond an acceptable mean. Our safety office is fairly reasonable, and I basically have a rule that if we could or do get warned about something we need to enforce it. Culture or not, I don't want to be on the hook if something happens.

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  • DJMH says:

    Neuromusic, one person could be safety, one person could be in charge of animal colony issues, and one person could be in charge of ordering; or you could distribute these three major tasks over the same three lab members evenly. It sounds as though you're saying a PI should only ever choose the latter route. Honestly, weird argument to make.

  • Lab Rockstar says:

    I can sorta see what Neuromusic is saying. Lab safety is a huge responsibility, and often people don't take you seriously because you're not the P.I. However, having a grad student in charge of safety still doesn't let the P.I. off the hook, it just makes the lab a little safer. So you kinda look like a little pill if you're not willing to play nice with your P.I. on this one.

    That being said, you can always ask your advisor to work with you to find a mutually beneficial arrangement that will make you willing to do work that you feel it is going to take up more than the allotted "gesture of goodwill" time. Usually if you come at the conversation from the "I need your help to be the best I can be" perspective rather than the "Eff you and your needs, dude" perspective, everything goes a lot better.

  • [...] raises question of who is responsible for safety. You should also read the posts on this case by Prof-like Substance and [...]

  • awvish says:

    I'm an evolutionary biology graduate student just starting my first summer of research at an R01 university, and my lab is a mess: the undergrads eat on the benches while doing experiments, do science on the tiny 'food' area, wear open-toed shoes, have never knowingly been near a safety course or an MSDS...etc. My advisor is a young PI (just got tenure) with background in non-chemical, behavior-type research, and doesn't seem to understand the dangers to (a) people and (b) the science (in terms of contamination). I've talked with her, and her response is essentially "We don't work with much dangerous stuff, so you need to calm down".

    The first part is true: my lab doesn't work with that many dangerous reagents ("Only acetonitrile and acetone"), but I feel like that shouldn't matter for things like eating while pipetting she right on the second point? Am I just too uptight about this?

    If not, given that I've approached my advisor with my concerns and her response has essentially been to ignore them, what do I do next? Legality aside, I feel some moral responsibility for the safety of the undergrads and younger scientists who aren't getting good safety mentorship--and of course, selfishly, I don't want anyone to put their sandwich down on my experiment (developmental chemistry work) when I'm out of the room.


  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think you should start by controlling what you can control (the work in you area and how you act in the lab), then gently educate those around you doing the work. If you let them know about the dangers (not to mention sanitary issues) of eating in the lab, they may respond the way you want without browbeating. Often times people just don't realize without being told.

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