Lab Safety Expert Cites Real-World Examples, Lessons Learned

Sep. 6, 2019

Craig Merlic got his start in chemistry as a 14-year-old making bombs and explosives. His interest in chemical reactions has not waned, but is now matched by an equal concern for safe practices in the laboratory. 

On Sept. 5, Merlic, a UCLA chemistry professor and director of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, visited the Princeton campus to give a talk, “Enhancing Laboratory Safety and the Principles of Safe Research.” His presentation featured 10 core principles of safety illustrated by numerous real-world examples of accidents, lessons learned and strategies for making working and studying in labs safer. 

Merlic’s talk began on a sobering note with the story of 23-year-old UCLA lab worker, Sheri Sangji, who died in early 2009 from burns caused by a fire associated with her work with pyrophoric material. Sangji was not wearing a lab coat. A few years later, a researcher at the University of Utah survived a similar accident with no injury—she was wearing a flame- and chemical-resistant lab coat.

“It’s probably the reason I’m here today,” Merlic said of the tragedy. “Now we recognize the importance of laboratory safety, and it’s important to get the message out.” 

Changes made at UCLA include how inspections are done, new personal protective equipment (PPE) policies, faculty-led safety committees overseen by EHS, and strict training prerequisites for researchers. ”Nowadays no faculty are allowed anywhere near the lab until they have completed safety training and make sure all their students have the appropriate safety training and safety PPE,” he stressed.

Programs and Culture Matter

Merlic focused on three core elements in his talk: safety programs (requirements, programs, training), safety culture (what people do in the lab), and safety outcomes (accidents, near misses and lessons learned).  

“Promoting safety culture and preventing accidents requires a culture of safety and a particular faculty engagement,” he said. The relationship between programs and culture is a two-way street: rules don’t matter if no one is following them, and compliance does not matter if you don’t have good rules.  

A safety culture survey of four research-intensive universities conducted by the UC Center for Laboratory Safety found clear correlation between faculty and PI involvement and engagement with students on matters of safety, and safety outcomes in laboratories. “[The survey] clearly indicated the value of reviewing procedures and having leadership within the research group,” he said. 

The survey also underscored the importance or addressing risk on all levels. “If you’re working on reducing the major injuries, you’re probably going to be reducing those common injuries. If you reduce those common injuries, you’re going to have an impact in reducing the major injuries,” Merlic said.    

Real-World Examples

Even more than data, however, the consequence of lapses in rule-setting, training, compliance and behavior were illustrated by Merlic through real-world anecdotes. 

Problems highlighted included uncontrolled heating, improper selection of materials and equipment (including use of equipment not designed for the purpose at hand), faulty equipment, a lack of monitoring of real-time processes, unnecessary scale-ups (use of more material than recommended or required) and unsafe procedures for transferring or quenching chemicals. 

Several examples involved students trying to address small fires or uncontrolled reactions by opening equipment or fume hoods, thereby introducing oxygen and causing an explosion. “In any accident, first stop, then think, and finally, act,” Merlic said. 

In conclusion, Merlic stated that, while there is no magic bullet for lab safety, engagement by faculty, analysis of incidents and better-designed experiments will go a long way toward creating a safer research environment. 

Article by: James Sturdivant