Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Health and Safety at Texas Tech University
By Cliff Harris and Paul Cotter

Health and safety at Texas Tech University come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Health and safety has evolved to meet the growing needs of Texas Tech. New technology, increased regulatory requirements, societal changes and litigation have all contributed to changes in the manner health and safety is conducted. Instead of just a “safety department” with a couple of employees, health and safety evolved into a significant factor in all that is done at the university. Now there are numerous personnel in many areas, and their main job duty is safety. Health and safety now includes such areas as radiation safety, occupational safety, environmental health, indoor air quality, laboratory safety, fire safety, fleet vehicle safety, personal safety and emergency management. There are specialized personnel that handle asbestos, mold and laser safety. Some departments now have their own health and safety staff to deal with the requirements specific to their personnel. Subjects such as hazardous waste, process hazard analysis, bulk sampling, NESHAP, active shooter, fire suppression systems and distracted drivers are part of the safety conversations at Texas Tech. Despite all the differences in terminology, despite the myriad regulations and regulatory agencies involved, and despite various agendas, each person involved has the singular goal to insure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff at Texas Tech.

In spite of the resources allocated to implement and support safety in the workplace, accidents continue to occur. In order for a culture of safety to evolve within the framework of any entity, it must be embraced by the employees, beginning with the top administration and extending to the most recent hire. Texas Tech is committed to insuring the health and safety of its students, faculty and staff. The upgrades to the life safety systems in the architecture and biology buildings are almost complete. Work will start shortly to upgrade the life safety systems in the human sciences building. Recommendations from the Lab Safety Institute and the Chemical Safety Board have been reviewed, and changes have been made to the Chemical Hygiene Plan. Safety in the laboratories has been a primary emphasis. Modifications to existing laboratories, a renewed emphasis on safety equipment maintenance and new equipment purchases are all contributing to safety in the labs. The university has recently purchased ChemWatch, a chemical management program, that will make the information found on safety data sheets available to all of the students, faculty and staff using an electronic format. The database is eRaider protected and can be accessed from the EH&S homepage. The new system will be much more efficient and timely than the binders many departments are maintaining. While it will still be required for areas with chemicals to maintain a hard copy of safety data sheets in the location where chemicals are located. You also must maintain a current inventory of all your chemicals. This shall be kept in a different location away from the chemicals, with directions to its location.

However, all the equipment purchases, safety plans and training are not sufficient if the individual does not feel the changes will enhance personal safety. Without individual buy-in, a safety program, no matter how well it is funded, cannot succeed. Employees can protect themselves and help insure their personal safety by taking an active part in the university safety program. Lab workers should wear personal protective equipment whenever it is required, and they should review safety data sheets and standard operating procedures prior to implementing any lab experiment. If they see unsafe activities or are involved in a near-miss incident, lab workers should let their supervisors know. A near-miss incident report in one area could prevent an injury in another. Principal investigators can insure the lab personnel under their supervision are properly trained, review standard operating procedures, perform a process hazard analysis and act as an example by using personal protective equipment when required and practicing good safety. Office workers can help ensure their safety by knowing where the location of the fire exits are in their work area, identifying safe areas in the event of a workplace violence incident, and driving safely to and from work. Supervisors can help by locating and ensuring devices such as the automatic external defibrillator in their area is working at all times and following university policies for self-help projects. Food care workers should make sure to wash their hands after going to the restroom, and food service managers can make sure raw, potentially hazardous food is not stored with ready-to-eat food in the refrigerator. It is vitally important that everyone understands the important role each person must play if a safety program is going to work.

If we just look at the Texas Tech laboratories, there were 67 safety incidents from 2012 until the present. However, these incidents are only those that were reported to EH&S, and this figure does not include any near-miss incidents. Approximately 50 percent of the incidents involved chemicals or biohazards. These included exposures, fires, burns and explosions. Based on these numbers, it is apparent that one area of emphasis in lab safety continues to be the interaction between chemical and biological hazards and the laboratory worker. Increased reporting by supervisors and lab personnel could assist in the identification of more specific areas of concern, or it could identify a near-miss issue that the reported incidents are missing altogether. This can only happen if each individual becomes actively involved in the safety program.

If each person does not become actively involved in the program then the culture of safety that could significantly improve Texas Tech will never truly evolve. We will continue to have accidents and injuries that might have been avoided if everyone had been working as a team, looking out for each other, rather than just a few professionals and a small core of safety-conscious personnel trying to jumpstart a safety program. The university has shown it will provide the tools, but to complete the circle, each person has to join in.

Cliff Harris is interim director of the Texas Tech Department of Environmental Health and Safety.
Paul Cotter is a unit manager in the Texas Tech Department of Environmental Health and Safety.