When it comes to laboratory safety, there aren't any second chances.
Or are there?
According to Peter Ashbrook, the director of the UI's Division of Research Safety, several high-profile accidents at national research universities over the past three years are giving the UI an opportunity to revisit its own approach to lab safety.
"I don't know if it's an increase in (accident) frequency or increased reporting," he said, "but the academic community is certainly aware."
And so is the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which released a report on laboratory safety and an accompanying video in October directed at university labs.
The 24-minute video, "Experimenting With Danger," uses two of the most recent accidents - a 2008 fire death in a lab at the University of California at Los Angeles and a 2010 explosion at Texas Tech University that seriously injured a graduate student - to illustrate the need for added precaution in following well-known lab safety procedures.
"Research conducted at university laboratories is often on the forefront of technology and innovation," said CSB chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso. "It is important that this research continues and thrives. But it must be done within a strong safety culture where preventing hazards is an important value."
Ashbrook said campus-based laboratories carry inherent challenges, including student turnover and tight project deadlines.
"There's no way we could be in all of the labs on campus all of the time - there are just too many," he said.
Depending on the criteria used to count the number of UI labs (considering some are contained within lab "suites"), Ashbrook estimates there are anywhere from 800 to 3,000, dealing with everything from volatile chemicals to biological and radiological components.
"The potential hazards are pretty wide - it's a long laundry list," he said. "Chemistry is usually the department you think about first, but there is a whole universe of things that could go wrong in all of the sciences."
Plus, the types of research and accompanying regulations change frequently, making it difficult for any one person to know all of the applicable rules.
To ensure all labs are following specific safety procedures, Ashbrook's office relies on each lab's assigned "principal investigator" - the point person charged with ensuring lab compliance.
"All of the safeguards make an accident less likely, but they still do happen," he said. "Accidents happen to the best of people. That's why it's not just a matter of trying to do as good a job as we can - we have to be able to do better."
Ashbrook's office offers training and consultation to campus units focusing on safety and conducts audits to determine if policies are being adhered to. He said the office also is working on a tool to identify major hazards that regularly cross research disciplines.
"Safety requires constant attention," he said. "People tend to get complacent when nothing goes wrong for a long time, and there are some folks who just don't pay enough attention. We try to use incidents that have happened on campus to bring the lesson a little closer to home. When something goes wrong, we should learn from it."
That's why the continued promotion of a "safety culture," where both students, staff and professors take responsibility for a safe working environment, is so important, he said.
One common policy is to avoid working alone in the lab, just in case something goes wrong, he said. The temptation to work by oneself grows during the holidays, when research groups may be split up while on break.
"We have to have people looking out for each other," he said. "The vast majority of students won't experience an accident of a major nature, so safety is kind of a value judgment because people have different perceptions. It's almost like, if you don't see (an accident) yourself, it's a fantasy."
Being safe also can take more time, something that doesn't always fit well within the deadline-driven research environment. Some campus researchers regularly complain that myriad regulations make it difficult to complete tasks.
"That's something we definitely struggle with," Ashbrook said, noting a recent study showing that researchers spend nearly half their time meeting regulatory guidelines - and not conducting research.
"That's one of our challenges - how to give good guidance while allowing them to make the most efficient use of their time. As humans, we don't stay on red alert 24/7 - so how do you decide what are reasonable precautions?"
Case study offers new insights into research safety
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, charged with investigating industrial accidents, has collected data on 120 incidents at national university lab and research facilities since 2001, using the information to offer new "lesson" guidelines aimed specifically at university-led research. They include:
"The CSB's case study is a call to academia to examine internal safety policies and procedures for research labs," the CSB's Rafael Moure-Eraso said. "It's also an opportunity for research funding agencies to require universities to ensure that effective safety systems are in place before awarding grants for scientific studies."