Academic Lab Due Diligence Post-Sangji

A colleague and I were discussing the Sangji case off-line and I did what I am pathologically prone to do which is to blurt out suggestions.  I’m passing them along to my other friends out in the ether as a rough guideline to thinking about training and due diligence. My suggestions are merely a watered down version of a typical industrial EH&S SOP.

Due Diligence

Your university EH&S department no doubt has some some form of written policy, but having your own arrangement with your student workers will accomplish two things for you- 1) you will have written and signed documentation on having trained your students to use what you might call, if not “best practices”, then “reasonable and ordinary practices” in the lab, and 2) you will have made it perfectly clear to them what kind of expectations you have in regard to their work practices, open lab times, types of activities they may perform unsupervised by you, and your absolute dedication to lab worker safety.

In a civil or criminal action you will be under court order to surrender your documents in a process called “discovery”. Your attorney, being an officer of the court, is legally obligated to ensure that you surrender all of your documentation related to the action.

So, wouldn’t it be useful to surrender documentation of your diligence in all matters of safety?

Making a student or other lab worker’s activity in your lab contingent upon some basic operating rules is not at all unreasonable. And, if the rules are clearly written with consequences for violation of policies, then everyone knows the expectations.

No one can predict the future. But what you can do is some due diligence. Have a written training program with goals and scope. Run your research students and other coworkers through it every year and have them sign off on their attendance. Put it in a file and hope that you never have to pull it out in self-defense.

Such a program would be a solid basis for your defense attorney to argue that you went to reasonable measures to train students on escape plans, shower and eye wash use, sharps, proper PPE, fire extinguisher use, lab hygiene, proper storage, and special techniques to use when handling reactive/toxic/corrosive/flammable materials.

A policy on the amount of flammable materials you have in your lab space is a good thing as is a policy of segregating chemicals in storage according to their flammability and corrosiveness.

Get a signature from coworkers on the policies as well and file it away. I think this is critical. Give a copy of your policies and training plan to the department chairman.

Possible Blowback

Once you have given instruction on your policies, collected all of the signatures, and neatly filed them away, the hard part begins. You must be consistent in enforcing the policies. You have to tear yourself away from the word processor and make periodic safety inspections. If you’re off to a week-long NSF study session, a proxy should be appointed to monitor your labs.

The last thing you want is to have a plan that crumbles under scrutiny. You want to have a gap free history of due diligence.  Former coworkers may be called to testify as to your enforcement of safety rules. Nothing rings hollow like a safety plan that was constructed only for show.

Benefit

A benefit to all of this due diligence is that you may have actually made your lab a safer place to work and have instilled a level-headed safety mentality in your coworkers. Fancy that.

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About gaussling

Gaussling is a senior scientist in the chemical business. He occasionally breaks glassware and has been known to generate new forms of hazmats. Gaussling also digs aerospace, geology, and community theatre. View all posts by gaussling

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