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K-State Today

June 26, 2015

Lab safety: How safe are we?

By Steve Galitzer

What is safety? If you think it is a defensive back who normally is positioned well behind the line of scrimmage, you watch too much football. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines safety as freedom from harm or danger: the state of being safe.

Wouldn't it be nice if our world were safe? In the environment there are many common occurrences that make the world an unsafe place. In our own houses, safety is something that can't be taken for granted. The workplace is no different. But who among us is continually aware of their safety? It is a matter of attitude.

A recent journal article in the journal of chemical health and safety described laboratory safety attitudes and practices in the U.S. The University of California, Los Angeles research compared the safety attitudes of academic, government and industry researchers. The authors looked at risk perception, training and the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Safety training was similar in each group. Risk perception also was similar between groups but researchers believed their personal risk was significantly lower than what was indicated by their institution.

The greatest difference was self-reported compliance with the use of PPE. Highest compliance was with industry researchers who wore lab coats and eye protection, while academic researchers reported the least compliance:

• Industry workers wore lab coats 87 percent of the time and eye protection 83 percent.
• Government workers wore lab coats 73 percent of the time and eye protection 76 percent.
• Academic workers wore lab coats 66 percent of the time and eye protection 61 percent.

When safety behavior is monitored, PPE compliance increased. Data and proof is very important to scientists in changing safety culture; risk perception motivates safety behavior. The study provides evidence that risk perception may not be aligned with the hazards present stating, "The mismatch between researchers' perception of their own risk and what they think their institutions perceives is their risk in the laboratory could potentially result in accidents."

The authors were able to put real numbers to this claim:

• 90 percent of academic lab respondents "feel safe in the laboratory."
• 45 percent of respondents from academic labs have "injury to self."
• 71 percent of respondents from academic labs have "witnessed minor injuries in the lab."
• 30 percent have "witnessed a major injury in the lab."

So how safe are we? All employees are required to complete a PER-17 if they are involved in an accident. If their injuries require medical care other than local first aid, the State Self Insurance fund will decide on payments and time lost on the job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were slightly more than 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported in 2013 resulting in an incidence rate of 3.3 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers. The rate in Kansas is only slightly higher at 3.5 cases per 100. But does everyone report an accident?

To improve safety, laboratory principal investigators and workers, including graduate students, should follow the basic principles when working with chemicals:

• Minimize all chemical exposures.
• Avoid underestimating the risk.
• Use adequate ventilation.
• Do not pipet by mouth.
• Do not store or consume food and beverages in the laboratory.
• If an accident occurs, complete accident report, PER17.
• Wear proper personal protective equipment — as a minimum: eye protection, laboratory coat, close toed shoes and chemical resistant gloves.