Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Promoting a Safety Culture
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.

In late October, at the invitation of the Whitacre College of Engineering, the Office of the Vice President for Research hosted a guest speaker on research safety. Bob Burro, a health, safety and environmental manager for Phillips 66, visited the Texas Tech campus and presented safety policies and practices at the Phillips 66 Tech Center. The safety presentation was useful but more enlightening was the discussion that followed Mr. Burro’s presentation. In an effort to promote safety in research, I thought it would be useful to address the presentation and discussion for those who were not present at the session.

I’m going to preface this article by presenting a bit of my training history in order to take inventory of my own past and present biases so that I can hopefully better address “why” we should promote a safety culture on campus. I have worked in research and more recently in responsible research administration. As such, I have experienced both resistance to training as a function of intellectual freedom as well as a progressive understanding why mandatory training and safety protocols are necessary. Oddly, when thinking about how my views evolved, my initial memory is one of resistance to compliance but in reality that wasn’t the case. In truth, I was trained to utilize compliance committees as a resource rather than a hindrance to productivity. Our research lab was housed in a basement of an old university building and I still believe that much of the university had forgotten that we were there. As such, it was a very independent environment seldom visited by inspectors. An exception to that isolation was a close relationship between our lab, the Lab Animal Resources and a meticulous IACUC. As a lab, we were trained to revere the IACUC and utilize lab animal resources to better our research. It was common practice to plan a new experimental protocol with input from animal resources. With respect to safety, however, I remember little external input. That’s not to say that the lab did not address lab hazards. In fact, the hazards present in that lab were regularly addressed and safe lab practices were stressed by both the PI and a highly experienced and very vocal lab technician (a rare and valuable resource). However, our safety training was generally limited to the hazards in our environment due to the isolation of the lab. So my training consisted of both an interactive relationship with a compliance division (IACUC) and independence from compliance (safety).

When I moved to a lab that was embedded in a large biomedical research environment, I first encountered mandatory and broad safety training that addressed a more variable research environment. Furthermore, much of the training focused on hazards different than those found in our immediate lab. It was in this environment that I developed a dismissive attitude to the mandatory safety training. I failed to realize that the training was designed to establish a general understanding of hazards found in the vicinity of our lab. Our lab was no longer isolated. Therefore, a variety of hazards could be encountered when entering other labs or even by interacting with colleagues in elevators or corridors. My resistance to training was short sighted with regard to my own career and my biggest error was transferring this resistance to students by treating the safety training with disregard. While I did require students to complete safety training, it was in a spirit to merely comply with mandatory training. In retrospect, my career and the students’ careers were likely to progress in unexpected ways and as such, a variety of hazards would be encountered. As a mentor, it would have been better to teach them to respect and utilize institutional safety training as a critical learning experience. Learning from previous mistakes has allowed me to recognize the importance of growing a safety culture at Texas Tech which would discourage others from similarly misdirecting students.

Now I will address the informative discussion prompted by the Burro presentation. In recent reports, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has proposed that there is a notable difference in safety systems and standards in industry as compared to academic campuses. Although industry and academics are distinct, the two environments are linked with regard to the progression of students to the workforce. Industry relies on academic institutions for their future supply of well trained employees and the reputation of academic institutions somewhat relies on the marketability of their graduates to industry, since many students plan on research careers in industry. As such, there is a recent partnering between industry and academic campuses to improve academic safety standards so that they better reflect the standards in industry. The seminar and discussion with Bob Burro was one of these conversations between the two types of institutions and it was the post seminar discussion that, for me, drove home the extreme challenges that universities face in trying to keep students and researchers safe, in what can be dangerous environments.

The populations and goals of academic and industrial institutions are quite distinct and as such, academic campuses face challenges in creating a safe research environment that are not faced in industry. Industry often has the luxury of a stable workforce and well trained experienced managers. Turnover is often discouraged because it is costly to train new workers. In addition, they also have a workforce that is motivated (financial or otherwise) to comply with regulations so that they maintain employment. University campuses have none of these luxuries. The goal of a university is, in fact, turnover. Students come to college for an education so that they can transition to the workforce. Only a small percentage of students pursue academic careers, so turnover is the normal state of university populations. In addition, many managers are postdocs or grad students and neither population has notable experience managing people. Furthermore, it is arguable that many junior faculty have little management experience, since earning a doctorate generally does not require coursework in management or the practical experience of managing a research team. As such, the normal state of a university lab, whether it is in an academic classroom or research space, is often one of an inexperienced manager supervising an inexperienced student population some of whom are not at all motivated to adhere to lab policy. In addition, preliminary coursework often consists of hundreds of freshmen undergrads, who widely vary in their maturity level and high school lab training, since many high schools do not require any practical lab experience. Industry safety systems do not need to address these personnel challenges.

An additional challenge to safety standards and training in academic settings is the construct and virtue of “intellectual freedom” that is often associated to academic positions. Many people that pursue careers in academics value the virtue of academic freedom and resist any attempt to trespass on that freedom. As such, “safety, protocol or training compliance” has a negative connotation to those pursuing intellectual freedom as do the compliance divisions of the university, such as EH&S, IACUC, IRB, etc., even if the associated personnel work hard to keep everyone out of trouble. The truth is that none of these divisions at TTU want to impede intellectual freedom rather they want to work with students and researchers to better the quality and safety of intellectual pursuits. These divisions want relationships with researchers that reflects the one that I witnessed in graduate school, where our lab actively worked with the IACUC/animal resources to improve knowledge, safety and quality of research. And although the progression of my own career may reveal an obvious bias associated with that statement, it does not negate the truth behind the assertion.

So, how do you promote the growth of the safety culture at TTU? Below are some effective strategies that were presented and/or discussed at the Burro seminar. Growing a safety culture will better prepare students for their future work environment but will also produce a future generation of researchers with an awareness of environmental hazards that may have been lacking in some of our training. In other words, it will help the next generation to NOT make the same mistakes that we did.

    1) Don’t make safety a priority because priorities have a way of changing from day to day. Rather make safety a value, a trait of the institution rather than a current trend or state.

    2) Create safety leaders rather than managers. Managers are good at adhering to processes or systems, where leaders create a vision or culture. Leaders create the direction/destiny and managers help to get you there. TTU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry includes graduate students on safety committees, which promotes a leadership population at the university.

    3) Keep in mind that communication to your team is both verbal and nonverbal. Keep words and actions consistent and lead by example.

    4) Be active in teaching managers how to correct bad behavior. Managers should explain why a safety policy exists rather than just engaging in punitive enforcement. Understanding promotes compliance. TTU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is actively working with graduate teaching assistants teaching them how to interact with the undergraduate population to manage safety in academic labs. The program actively teaches management skills and addresses problem behavior in a young and inexperienced population.

    5) Utilize positive reinforcement for good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. Specifically, reward labs for reporting “near misses” or minor incidents. Don’t reward for perfect safety record because it discourages reporting of near misses. Understanding the patterns of near misses will reveal where additional training is needed and enable leaders and managers to intervene before there is a serious incident.

    6) Although universities cannot and should not be responsible for training students for the immediate hazards in any industry environment, they should actively promote a proactive attitude to learn, address and improve safety systems in any research environment. A lesson that I learned the hard way.

    7) Create a system for assessing immediate risks and hazards in any research environment. A colleague of mine would utilize new members of the lab to assess lab hazards. After they completed safety training, she would set up flaws in the lab and tell them to go and find safety problems. The students knew there were staged hazards that they had to find, therefore they had to do a thorough assessment of the lab to find the flaws. In doing so, they would often discover problems that had not been staged and as a result improved the safety in the lab.

    8) Improve communication on safety.

    9) Do not punish accidents because it discourages people from reporting accidents or near misses. In fact, reward reporting.

    10) Actively discourage dismissive or disparaging attitudes toward safety training and protocols.

    11) Utilize Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) to advise faculty and consult on how to improve research environments. However, keep in mind that EH&S cannot be in all places at all times, so they cannot be immediately responsible for student safety. The safety of students and the research team is the responsibility of the PI and lab managers.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.