Safety protocols are only as good as the Principal Investigators who enforce them and the students who adopt them. Operating a lab is no easy feat. It takes patience, consistency and teamwork. In an attempt to learn more about how PIs create a culture of safety, I reached to a few across our university campus to get some tips and tricks for creating effective safety procedures.
A PI’s Guide to Safety Protocols
“My protocol is very clear, and students know the proper attire, but I had one student who arrived at the lab with shorts on. Apparently, he came from the gym … I guess he thought it was OK, but it’s definitely not,” said Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering.
Orman’s research work aims to explore and analyze why some bacterial cells are stubborn to certain therapies. Currently, he uses E. Coli as a model organism to conduct his experiments. His research has the potential to uncover the best methods for combating drug resistant bacteria (aka “super bugs”) which is a seen by many researchers and health organizations as a global crisis.
With such important work, Orman must run a tight ship in his lab. When I spoke to him, he provided his best practices for lab safety.
1. Signage is key
Hazard communication is critical in the lab. “Signage is VERY important. we’ve had students leave Bunsen burners on, which is extremely hazardous. I have signs up everywhere reminding students to turn off the flame.”
2. Remind and repeat
The rule of thumb: you need to hear something 5-7 times for it to sink in. “My lab is new, and my students are young and still learning how to conduct themselves safely. I have to remind them of the protocol religiously, but I’d rather repeat something a million times than have an unfortunate incident occur.”
3. Tailor safety protocols to suit your lab
One size does not fit all when it comes to lab safety. “UH has wonderful, baseline safety protocol and resources for me to use, but every lab is different. I take the foundational information provided by the university and tailor it to fit the needs of my work.”
4. Take baby steps
Throwing students into the experimental deep end can be a big risk when it comes to safety. “Because I am a new researcher at UH and my students are new, I decided to take baby steps with my experiments. My work is about studying drug resistant bacteria, so I decided to begin my scientific exploration with E. coli, a less dangerous organism.” – No pseudomonas aeruginosa just yet.
5. Note to all students: Don’t be shy
“Over time, many of the students become friends. This becomes awkward if they witness their friend violating a safety rule. I encourage the students to speak up (even if it’s their friend), if they see something that threatens everyone’s safety. Everyone wins in the end.”
Safety is a part of the scientific process
Rachel Redfern, O.D., Ph.D., FAAO, is a UH faculty member and an active researcher. Her work focuses on ocular surface inflammation and the impact of contact lenses on normal and diseased eyes. With such sensitive work, safety in the lab is incredibly important to Redfern. She believes keeping her students safe begins at the top but depends on everyone in the lab.
“When students enter my lab, it’s my responsibility to create a safe space where they can perform experiments to answer their growing scientific questions,” said Redfern. “We work as a team to put safety first, but we’re all aware that everyone has different levels of lab safety experience – Every question (regarding safety) is a good one and the questions never asked are the dangerous ones.”
When asked how her students internalize a culture of safety, Redfern praised the education resources of the university.
“At UH, we have access to excellent training to promote a safe culture (shout out to Joe and the UH Environmental Health and Life Safety team!) and training is non-negotiable,” said Redfern. “Also, I often pair new students with seasoned students because setting a good example (among peers) is the best way to encourage students to follow safety practices during routine lab work.”
Eye on safety
When Redfern was a youngster in the lab, she learned that safety was critical to research.
“I was trained by scientists (and worked with peers) who view safety as an element of the scientific process,” said Redfern. “Fortunately, I haven’t been exposed to a ton of outrageous safety violations in my career; however, I have witnessed researchers smoking with latex gloves on and even eating in their dirty lab coats.”
At the end of the day, Redfern just wants to learn more about the complexities of the human eye and Orman wants to study super bugs and how to address a significant health issue. In order to do that, they must conduct experiments with the help of students in a safe environment. This takes team work, group and individual accountability, and everyone’s eye on safety.
When asked about his overall message to PIs and lab safety, Orman simply said, “We’re here for a purpose. We all must have each other’s back to stay safe and conduct meaningful research. It’s just how it is.”