Advances in Lab Safety Measures Since the Tragic UCLA Lab Fire

This month at the ChemSW Blog we are covering fire code reporting. In the wake of the recent court case surrounding the tragic UCLA lab fire, we also want to bring attention to several organizations that are fighting for lab safety and bringing best practices into labs across the country. One such organization is OSHA, which is pushing out the new GHS labeling and classification system this is to empower employees with information about the chemicals they are handling. OSHA already has labeling requirements, but GHS will supersede these with enhanced labels. Examples of what happens when chemical safety is not followed often ends in tragedy on many levels. One accident that has been in the news recently is the court case involving the death of a research assistant. Last week, the lab professor was arraigned on charges of willfully violating workplace safety laws. The case refers to a lab fire in 2008 that occurred when a syringe containing t-butyl lithium came apart, spraying the chemical compound which ignited upon air contact. Without a lab coat, the research assistant sustained burns across her body and passed away days later. This is a tragic moment in the history of research, and some sources suggest it is solemn reminder to check our own closets for safety skeletons as well. In fact, there are many groups working hard to bring lab safety up to speed.

NFPA Collects Fire Code Reporting to Support Local Fire Departments

The UCLA case is a timely reminder that accidents can happen to anyone and that it is so critical to prepare both the lab environment and researchers. There is always room for improvement when it comes to safety, which is demonstrated by the hundreds of proposed changes to the fire code that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) receives every year. National Fire Codes are always updated to reflect new societal changes and fire protection research. Fire codes were established to support the local fire departments by making sure they had the information necessary to be effective in a lab emergency. Keeping track of these updates can seem daunting, but there are affordable software solutions to manage inventory and even compile fire code reports for the whole worksite.



OSHA Rolling Out New GHS Regulations for Lab Worker Empowerment

One of the leading regulatory agencies working on new safety standards is OSHA, which is leading the front with the GHS guideline adoption in the United States. These guidelines aim to empower researchers with standardized information about the chemicals in the lab. Many implementation deadlines are coming up on the calendar, starting this December. This is expected to affect 40 million employees at 5 million sites across the nation. Championing the reason that employees have a “right to know” what chemicals they are working with and how to handle them properly, OSHA is requiring training of the new GHS labeling system ahead of implementing the new labels in 2015.

While the national guidelines create an important level of safety for the lab, there are also many private programs that go the extra mile to highlight best practices for safety.


Dow Teams Up with University of Minnesota to Pilot Lab Safety Best Practices

In the private sector, safety advancements are moving ahead as well. Dow Chemical is investing in a lab safety program adapting best practices from the chemical industry to the university research labs. The program started with surveying newly hired Dow researchers on the differences they notice between their academic and industrial lab experiences. The main answer was the emphasis on safety at Dow. New researchers spend at least 30 hours in safety training before stepping into the lab. Before new projects launch, there is a pre-experiment safety meeting with advisors weighing in on potential safety issues and protocol.

The Dow safety initiative joined the existing Joint Safety Team at the University of Minnesota, which is a group of safety officers from all of the chemistry and chemical engineering research groups. This group is already lauded for its practices, so the Dow project is aimed at creating a culture of safety. This group has to address the high turnover in the academic setting, so there is a system of veteran members training new recruits. Because the “new hire” can often bring tons of enthusiasm, questions, and energy, it is important to harness that momentum. The lab safety team said it is also empowering to have a contact at Dow Chemical as a resource. This is just one example of a private group working toward safety for researchers and student research assistants.

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