Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
The Institutional Laboratory Safety Committee: Working with Faculty and Staff to Improve TTU’s Safety Culture
By Dimitri Pappas

Laboratory safety touches almost every aspect of scholarly work conducted at Texas Tech, and not just in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. Keeping labs, studio spaces, facilities, and teaching spaces safe requires a constant attention to chemical and physical hazards. The stakes are high. Accidents in our teaching labs impact students and may send a message home to parents about the welfare of their children. Accidents in our research labs can invalidate years of work at the least and result in serious injury. Most faculty and staff probably associate lab safety with Departments such as Chemistry and Biochemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Biological Sciences. However, art departments and even English have hazards that must be recognized and mitigated to ensure safe and productive scholarly work. As we work to blur the lines between departments and research fields, it is conceivable that we will place people into physical and chemical hazards with which they are unfamiliar. Keeping our students, postdoctoral researchers, staff and others safe requires a multi-level effort and a change in university safety culture at the national level.

While occupational units such as the physical plant have safety hazards, they resemble their public sector counterparts where safety is taught and expected. Faculty in research and teaching settings, however, are largely untrained in aspects of safety and safety management. Until recently, safety considerations have not been part of student dissertations or theses. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have only recently demanded rigorous training plans for students and postdoctoral associates. So how does one break a decades-long cycle of minimal training in lab safety? That is one of the issues that the Institutional Laboratory Safety Committee (ILSC) intends to tackle.

Like most faculty, I came from a lab where self-governance was the rule. Those of us who took safety seriously did on our own initiative. After graduate school I worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. That transition, from university to a more industrial setting, was eye opening. Our employment was contingent upon safe practices, and inspections were frequent and thorough. The level of safety requirements placed upon our creative efforts was more than any university in the country, on par with what is found in industrial manufacturing.

My goal, one that is shared by the entire ILSC, is to increase safety awareness and procedures at Texas Tech while ensuring that faculty and staff can do their jobs. Safety is essential to creative, scholarly output. A hypothetical faculty member with a reputation for unsafe work is no different than one who fabricates results. A recent visit from Bob Burro, a safety officer at Conoco-Phillips, highlighted this concept. He stated that Conoco-Phillips looks at a university’s safety track record as well as proposed safety plans before contracting work and sponsoring research. His company has pulled research funding from other universities for safety infractions. Federal funding agencies are leaning in the same direction.

At the ILSC we have several tasks to accomplish. Some will be ongoing, such as the approval of chemical protocols. We have already grouped major classes of chemicals together and have generated standard procedures of safe use and handling. Our goal is to have a set of standard protocols one can adopt for a researcher’s specific use. We also approved new chemical hazard protocols, ensuring that researchers have done their due diligence when working with hazardous chemicals. We also set university-wide safety policies, working closely with chemical safety officers, Environmental Health and Safety, and the Office of the Vice President of Research to set sound and effective rules for working with chemical and physical hazards. The ILSC also has been working to address requirements set by the Chemical Safety Board to improve safety reporting and our safety culture. We have already generated a new Chemical Hygiene Plan, a continuously updated safety manual, as well a testing system to ensure faculty, staff, and students have accessed and read the plan.

Safety as a cultural mindset cuts across every level of work conducted at the university. Administrators support our safety efforts, providing both resources and guidance to conduct our scholarly work safely. Lab directors, principle investigators, instructors and staff implement safety policies, train students to conduct work ethically and safety and work with compliance officers. Students and research personnel, the backbone of our scholarly efforts, are at the forefront of lab safety and need our support and mentorship to conduct their work safely. The ILSC works to integrate these levels of effort together into a cohesive vision that will ultimately lead to a tradition of laboratory safety at Texas Tech.

Dimitri Pappas is associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and chair of the Institutional Laboratory Safety Committee