Safety and the Law

There was a time whenever I had to deal with anything labeled Health and Safety at work that I would want to jump up and down and scream at the complete irrationality of it all. It took a single epiphany to make me understand how to cope with this frustrating topic even though I still want to scream a bit. The key insight was that occupational health and safety is actually the combination of two unrelated topics, preventing accidents and preventing lawsuits.

I used to naively believe these two were somehow related since you can’t have a lawsuit without something bad happening. That is certainly true, but there are two other truths that breakdown the correlation of lawsuit prevention and safety, 1) accidents will happen no matter what (the shit happens principle) and 2) what prevents lawsuits (documentation, blind unthinking adherence to “safety” procedures, ticking off paperwork and overly general safety training) usually does not prevent accidents but can actually create more dangerous ways of working.

Separating the law aspect from the safety aspect of lab work can really help to understand how to make a better and safer workplace. First and foremost, if we ignore the legal for a minute, safety always comes down to how well each worker is trained in good habits and how well they understand what they are doing and what the real risks are. That means, knowing that big bottles of common acids, bases and organics are much more dangerous than minute amounts of potential mutagens and radioactivity, it means knowing what to do when you inevitably spill something, it means knowing that anything sealed and frozen or under pressure could explode in your face.  Most importantly, in science it means understanding what you are doing, what your lab mates are doing, and having a true realistic assessment of the risks with your SPECIFIC experiments.

On the other hand time wasting chemical safety classes on transport and disposal regulations that no one but safety officers need can cause workers to focus on the wrong issues and miss-evaluate their true risks. In my opinion, some rules for handling and concentrating mildly dangerous chemicals can actually increase the risk of spills making for a more unsafe work environment. A classic example was a class that suggested handling small containers of the radio-isotope P32 with forceps. This is insane as it greatly increases the probability of dropping the container when there is as negligible risk from the small amount of radioactivity that this procedure was being recommended for. Such measures come from the nuclear industry where much larger amounts of radioactivity are being handled. We frequently encounter the same over-kill rules with hazardous material rules written for handling large drums of chemicals instead of small vials containing minute amounts of material.  Another example is risking burns and wasting time and money autoclaving material that could be safely thrown in the trash at home.  I will go so far as to say that in decades of working at university labs I have never had a single safety training course worth the time spent in it with one exception: an outdoor first aid class for a field course. This was useful because of the real life role playing exercises focusing on real life scenarios. I should say that is not the fault of university administrators, but of federal and state regulators with the hopeless mandate to come up with uniform safety procedures and policies that can be applied across all types of organizations.

Real lab safety training only comes from your direct supervisors’ and lab coworkers’ one-on-one instruction in the lab. The most important and indispensable piece of safety equipment in the lab is your brain. Unfortunately human brains are very bad at assessing risk and will always focus on risks within their own experience. This is good for the individual worker in their own lab, if they have the good sense to stay vigilant and to develop good habits (the fading of attention to risk is the biggest safety problem).  However, this also means that someone else’s outside opinion from another field (“safety officers”) will always be less correct than your own, or a peer’s assessment. You are responsible for your own safety and those around you, and as a principle investigator you have to make sure that that one-on-one training is done and done well. But remember that accidents will always happen even if you do the right practical training and work correctly.  Without the paperwork, the useless required training courses, and following the legally required procedures to cover yourself, you will be the one with legal liability no matter how poorly or well you train your people.

This is a very important point, the really annoying and time wasting safety procedures are almost always about the law and not real life safety, but that does not mean they can be ignored. There is no use arguing with these rules and training requirements over whether they actually improve safety or not because that is not their function. Their function is to shift liability. The fact is that we PIs are personally responsible and can be held financially and criminally liable for accidents in our labs. If someone in your lab gets hurt and files a lawsuit, what do you think you university’s first move will be, 1) to provide you with legal help or 2) cover their own backsides?  All of that paper work and mandatory “safety training” is basically our way of dodging legal exposure. Remember that the same thing that works for our administrators is also our only legal strategy so we must make sure our workers and students are ticking the boxes too or else.

The trick to real occupational health and safety is to first figure out the legal requirements, then work to come up with practices complying with the rules and regulations while minimizing the negative effects these have on safety and productivity. The most dangerous trap is to believe that just because your organization is ticking all of the legal boxes your organization has actually done anything to improve safety. In my experience, blind box ticking degrades safety both directly by misapplying rules and practices, and indirectly by creating a general anti-safety attitude due the sheer stupidity and inane paper work that such rules generate. To improve safety the answer is not about thinking up clever rules or procedures, but motivating direct supervisors and lab workers towards a safe work culture and environment. Why not require each PI to put together his or her own lab safety training session once a year and peer review that training plan with the department? Even though this would be infinitely more effective, it cannot work because each lab will leave something different out and as soon as an accident happens that falls outside the training the lawyers will be called in and demand some sort of uniform watered down cookie cutter coverage. It is like playing whack a-mole with a new rule for each odd rare accident until the common sense stuff is lost in the noise.  It seems the best we can do practically is to remind each other to only do that in the hood, or to put on your eye protection, or to not leave that out on the bench, or show everyone the correct way to poor and carry corrosives and so on.  Only this sort of mentorship through habitually demonstrating good behavior will lower the frequency of accidents. What horrifies me is the real possibility that one can be free of liability by making sure their workers have checked the right legal boxes, without actually being sure they know how to work safely. Imagine the uproar if such box ticking avoidance of responsibility was applied to preventing sexual assault on campus. Oh, for HAVEN’s sake did I really accidentally mention that!


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