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Why does lab safety look different to chemists in academia and chemists in industry?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Here’s another approximate transcript of the conversation I had with Chemjobber that became a podcast. In this segment (from about 19:30 to 29:30), we consider how reaction to the Sheri Sangji case sound different when they’re coming from academic chemists than when they’re coming from industry, and we spin some hypotheses about what might be going on behind those differences:

Chemjobber: I know that you wanted to talk about the response of industrial chemists versus academic chemists to the Sheri Sangji case.

Janet: This is one of the things that jumps out at me in the comment threads on your blog posts about the Sangji case. (Your commenters, by the way, are awesome. What a great community of commenters engaging with this stuff.) It really does seem that the commenters who are coming from industry are saying, “These conditions that we’re hearing about in the Harran lab (and maybe in academic labs in general) are not good conditions for producing knowledge as safely as we can.” And the academic commenters are saying, “Oh come on, it’s like this everywhere! Why are you going to hold this one guy responsible for something that could have happened to any of us?” It shines a light on something interesting about how academic labs building knowledge function really differently from industrial labs building knowledge.

Chemjobber: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s very difficult for me to separate out whether it’s culture or law or something else. Certainly I think there’s a culture aspect of it, which is that every large company and most small companies really try hard to have some sort of a safety culture. Whether or not they actually stick to it is a different story, but what I’ve seen is that the bigger the company, the more it really matters. Part of it, I think, is that people are older and a little bit wiser, they’re better at looking over each other’s shoulders and saying, “What are you doing over there?” and “So, you’re planning to do that? That doesn’t sound like a great idea.” It seems like there’s less of that in academia. And then there’s the regulatory aspect of it. Industrial chemists are workers, the companies they’re working for are employers, and there’s a clear legal aspect to that. Even as under-resourced as OSHA is, there is an actual legal structure prepared to deal with accidents. If the Sangji incident had happened at a very large company, most people think that heads would have rolled, letters would have been placed in evaluation files, and careers would be over.

Janet: Or at least the lab would probably have been shut down until a whole bunch of stuff was changed.

Chemjobber: But in academia, it looks like things are different.

Janet: I have some hunches that perhaps support some of your hunches here about where the differences are coming from. First of all, the set-up in academia assumes radical autonomy on the part of the PI about how to run his or her lab. Much of that is for the good as far as allowing different ways to tackle the creative problems about how to ask the scientific questions to better shake loose the piece of knowledge you’re trying to shake loose, or allowing a range of different work habits that might be successful for these people you’re training to be grown-up scientists in your scientific field. And along with that radical autonomy — your lab is your fiefdom — in a given academic chemistry department you’re also likely to have a wide array of chemical sub-fields that people are exploring. So, depending on the size of your department, you can’t necessarily count on there being more than a couple other PIs in the department who really understand your work well enough that they would have deep insight into whether what you’re doing is safe or really dangerous. It’s a different kind of resource that you have available right at hand — there’s maybe a different kind of peer pressure that you have in your immediate professional and work environment acting on the industrial chemist than on the academic chemist. I think that probably plays some role in how PIs in academia are maybe aren’t as up on potential safety risks of new work they’re doing as they might be otherwise. And then, of course, there’s the really different kinds of rewards people are working for in industry versus academia, and how the whole tenure race ends up asking more and more of people with the same 24 hours in the day as anyone else. So, people on the tenure track start asking, “What are the things I’m really rewarded for? Because obviously, if I’m going to succeed, that’s where I have to focus my attention.”

Chemjobber: It’s funny how the “T” word keeps coming up.

Janet: By the same token, in a university system that has consistently tried to male it easier to fire faculty at whim because they’re expensive, I sort of see the value of tenure. I’m not at all argue that tenure is something that academic chemists don’t need. But, it may be that the particulars of how we evaluate people for tenure are incentivizing behaviors that are not helping the safety of the people building the knowledge or the well-being of the people who are training to be grown-ups in these professional communities.

Chemjobber: That’s right. We should just say specifically that in this particular case, Patrick Harran already had tenure, and I believe he is still a chaired professor at UCLA.

Janet: I think maybe the thing to point out is that some of these expectations, some of these standard operating procedures within disciplines in academia, are heavily shaped by the things that are rewarded for tenure, and then for promotion to full professor, and then whatever else. So, even if you’re tenured, you’re still soaking in that same culture that is informing the people who are trying to get permission to stay there permanently rather than being thanked for their six years of service and shown the door. You’re still soaking in that culture that says, “Here’s what’s really important.” Because if something else was really important, then by golly that’s how we’d be choosing who gets to stay here for reals and who’s just passing through.

Chemjobber: Yes.

Janet: I don’t know as much about the typical life cycle of the employee in industrial chemistry, but my sense is that maybe the fact that grad students and postdocs and, to some extent, technicians are sort of transient in the community of academic chemistry might make a difference as well — that they’re seen as people who are passing through, and that the people who are more permanent fixtures in that world either forget that they come in not knowing all the stuff that the people who have been there for a long, long time know, or they’re sort of making a calculation, whether they realize it or not, about how important it is to convey some of this stuff they know to transients in their academic labs.

Chemjobber: Yeah, I think that’s true. Numerically, there’s certainly a lot less turnover in industry than there is in academic labs.

Janet: I would hope so!

Chemjobber: Especially from the bench-worker perspective. It’s unfortunate that layoffs happen (topic for another podcast!), but that seems to be the main source of turnover in industry these days.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. strend 1:53 am 09/30/2012

    It doesn’t; or should I say shouldn’t matter whether we are talking about safety practices in laboratories in academia or the private industry. BOTH are failing miserably in assuring safety and health to anyone who works in any laboratory environment; as both areas police themselves when you get right down to it.

    I urge everyone to watch the short video, “Biolab Health and Safety” by the CRG Channel 2 which includes compelling evidence as to “UN-SAFETY” in both academia and private sector laboratories.

    The introduction to this video is; “Lower level biological laboratories are proliferating across the world, regularly working with new biological materials, genetically engineered viruses, nanomaterials and other biological materials. The current regulatory framework governing laboratory safety largely excludes such hazards.

    As this research rapidly expands, a broader scrutiny of human and environmental health and safety issues is necessary to ensure necessary research doesn’t impose unnecessary risks.

    The main question is HOW SAFE ARE THESE LABS? The video explains to the viewer very key points: there are 50,000 lab workers in US, 33% have reported at least one infection, Between 1979 – 2004 there were 1448 symptoms causing infections and 36 Deaths. According to the New York Times this is a “Substantial underestimation”

    There are short clips on Dr. Jeannette Abu-Bodie who contracted meiningoccal infection while visiting a bio lab and as a result has lost limbs; Professor Malcolm Casadaban who died 12 hours after he unknowingly was infected with the plague from his employer, The University of Chicago; Richard Dinn who was a lab assistant at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco who died 17 hours after his symptoms started from a deadly strain of bacterial meningitis he had been working with in the lab; Becky McClain who while working in research and development at Pfizer in Connecticut contracted a virus that leaves her with reoccurring paralysis & other illnesses; David Bell, an assistant researcher at Agraquest in Davis California who became extremely ill requiring emergency sinus surgery after purulent bloody pus was draining from his nose while he was at work and 3 days later the left half of his face became numb. Seven species of bacteria and fungi have been identified in Bell’s sinus or sputum cultures and bloodstream; One species of fungi has been identified in Bell’s blood serum which all relate to Agraquest’s patents and products. Another rare mucous was identified in a unrinalysis which had not been identified. This does not take into account the numerous microorganisms which Bell has shown a positive to a HIGH POSITIVE result in IgG MAST tests.

    Academia is a system within itself and like Vegas (unless someone dies) “what happens here stays here”.

    Students trust academia to protect them, after all, they are the lowly on the totem pole… their professors are the ones with the education, the experience and degrees, why would students believe they should have doubts as to academia not protecting their safety and health? Students are in a constant state of trying to learn and understand what is going on around them. When ‘mistakes’ are made they usually don’t have a clue that one was even made.

    As to labs in the private sector, health and safety laws are ignored on a regular basis and when there is an injury or illness pertaining to the laboratory workplace, the normal practice is to cover it up at all costs.. do damage control.

    The vast majority of private sector labs are research and development labs, which rely heavily on not only funding from investors but federal and/or state grants as well. Alas; fear of “being found out” in the area of negligence when it comes to worker health and safety and the injuries and illnesses that occur on their watch; more times than not “incidences” are ignored and never reported.

    Occupational safety and health (OSHA) offices throughout the United States very rarely follow up on complaints of violations in the laboratory workplace. As the last Physician on the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA); Dr. Larry Rose has said many times concerning Compliance Officers and Industrial Hygienists handling complaints that come to CalOSHA from a laboratory employee, “They don’t know how to read a medical chart, they don’t know what an infectious disease is and they don’t know what they are looking for”.

    California’s division of OSHA is notorious for either ignoring health and safety complaints or simply contacting the offending employer by letter or telephone instead of doing an immediate on-site inspection of the facility. Cal/OSHA takes the word of the employer over the employee; and in most cases accept the employer’s response that the employee is disgruntled. In the meantime the employer has time to correct (for the present time) or HIDE the evidence relating to the health and safety violation they are guilty of, should there b an actual physical inspection of the facility, which sometimes never happens.

    Then there is the problem with illnesses that have befallen laboratory employees; from exposure to what is or isn’t known to them, chemicals and biologicals… either an employee goes down fast or it may take weeks, months or even years for their health to decline because of one exposure or cumulative exposures. Illnesses and diseases resulting from workplace exposures can be progressive in nature and the “trigger” from the workplace, may never be known to many.

    There is much fear of retaliation surrounding employment in the laboratory arena. To obtain employment with such; and to keep being employed.. Secrecy Agreements, Trade Secret Agreements and/or Proprietary Information Agreements must be signed and adhered to. Even when an employee falls ill because of a lab acquired infection, it is not permitted to “say anything bad about the company” for fear of being sued because they had once signed one of these secrecy agreements with the company. There is also the fear of being black-balled in the industry.

    Adding insult to injury; when there is a workplace acquired injury or illness the exclusive remedy is the workers compensation system. This is a closed system, unlike any other Judicial system, which allows the misdeeds of the employer to be hidden under the umbrella of protection within the workers compensation sytem.. past, present and future employees; as well as the public are never made aware of the truth.

    This system, throughout the United States, is riddled with fraud, concealment, corruption and collusion because they are run and controlled by the very industry that is to pay for compensation and medical bills of the injured and ill… the workers’ compensation insurance companies. The premiums the businesses pay for workers’ compensation liability insurance is a 100% business expense and is written off as an allowable expense on tax filings.

    We all believe our government is going to protect us in the workplace. As Joe Bidden so well put it, “No one should have to die making a living”. Try as you may to believe health and safety in the scientific sector isn’t of much concern to members of congress; the truth is MANY of them have financial interests in the sciences and their pockets run very deep. Money is more important to them than upholding standing laws and passing new laws to keep up with the ever changing new technologies which are surfacing daily at a rapid pace.

    Link to this
  2. 2. strend 2:08 am 09/30/2012

    Please see:

    Biolab Safety March-April 2010
    GENEWATCH Volume 23 Issue 2;

    Editorial by Sam Anderson

    This may be one of the most important GeneWatch issues in recent memory. In its early days, the Council for Responsible Genetics put a great deal of effort into laboratory safety questions as Harvard University prepared to set up a recombinant DNA lab.

    Today biolab safety is still an important issue for those who live near a current or planned high security laboratory, such as Boston University’s plan to study highly pathogenic diseases in a Biosafety Level 4 lab nestled in the densely populated neighborhood of Roxbury. In this issue, we also focus on those directly in the line of fire: lab workers.

    Becky McClain’s case against Pfizer is central to this issue. While a researcher in a Pfizer lab, Becky became severely ill. All of the evidence suggests that a mishandled genetically engineered virus was the culprit, but Pfizer will not release the records that could prove this – and help Becky’s doctors determine the best course of treatment.

    Aside from Pfizer’s mistreatment of their own worker after se became ill, Becky’s case demonstrated how easily companies can get away with shocking poor safety measures in labs. This was even more clear in the case of David Bell who contracted a mysterious infection while working in a pesticide company where potentially hazardous experiments were conducted with only a bathroom fan for ventilation and where the researchers gathered each day for afternoon tea-not in the break room, but in the lab, among the researcher’s malaria experiments and exotic soil cultures.

    At Pfizer, the hallway doubled as lunch room. Workers ate while dangerous materials were carried past, and on several occasions Becky Mcclain says they discovered biological samples sitting where employees ate their lunches. Her complaints on the matter fell on deaf ears, as did David’s at his lab (he was told biohazard signs would not look good for tours). Becky compares safety hazards in biolabs to “a roach in the kitchen”-when you see one, you can bet it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

    The same could be said of Becky McClain and David Bell themselves. These are not isolated incidents. Now that we have seen these two cases, one has t wonder: how many more are there out there?

    Link to this

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