Science Magazine this week had a tragic coverage of the accident that happened at UCLA's chemistry lab where a research assistant died due to the injuries she sustained while doing work. And in the news appearing today, UCLA has been fined by the state's safety body due to this accident.
For many of us experimentalists who went through doing research work at our various institutions while we were graduate students, 'safety' was almost unheard of. We tend to learn what to do from either other graduate students, a postdoc, or if we're lucky, from our supervisors. The safety aspect was never a formal part of our training or work. Some time a senior graduate student would tell us what to do or what not to do when he or she thought it was appropriate. But mainly, there were often no formal training in safety in the lab.
If you then work at a US Nat'l Lab, the culture is the reverse. Before you even lift a finger to do something, you are already inundated with a series of safety orientation and then a bunch of safety training courses that are commensurate with what you will be doing. Many people (and sometime, including me) moaned the chore of going through this myriad of safety course. But even when I really don't feel like going through it, in the back of my mind, I actually appreciate the fact that I at least know what is a safe practice and what isn't, and I at least know WHERE to seek assistance in case that I'm not sure what to do. This is because I am being made aware of the support organization that has been designed to help me with such information. To me, that is the single most important realization in working in a research lab, especially when one is dealing with potentially dangerous situations.
Such support system isn't available, or at least, not well-established at most universities. I know that I went through college without knowing that there was even such a thing as "health and safety" section of the school that was supposed to monitor lab safety and safe practices. We just went in and do our work under the assumption that what we're doing isn't dangerous. I bet, right now, that if you go around various university labs and research areas, you'll find numerous OBVIOUS safety violations (I'm not talking about nit-picking small ones). Do you see gas cylinders unsecured to an immovable structure? Or what about an extension cord connected to another extension cord? Or having cryogenics and compressed gas in tight, confined working space?
I'm surprised there aren't many more of these type of accidents happening in college labs. Or maybe there are many more smaller accidents that just do not get reported or do not the same level of publicity.