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Estimate: Academic Labs 11 Times More Dangerous Than Industrial Counterparts 153

Jim_Austin writes "Academic science labs are generally far less safe than labs in industry; one estimate says that people working in academic labs are 11x more likely to be hurt than their industrial counterparts. A group of grad students and postdocs in Minnesota decided to address the issue head-on. With encouragement and funding from DOW, and some leadership from their department chairs, they're in the process of totally remaking their departments' safety cultures."
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Estimate: Academic Labs 11 Times More Dangerous Than Industrial Counterparts

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  • Yes, wrap everything in red tape and "health and safety", wear a helmet and a high visibility jacket all the time inside the university and even going to bed... That's the answer. Oh, and more stupid courses on how not to break your neck sitting at a desk.

    Labs are more dangerous, because they are doing non-standard groundbreaking stuff in the labs, not some conveyor repetitive stuff that people have been doing for 100 of years and every move is known. That's why it's a lab and not a factory- you do risky unproven stuff there. Also, you get young hotshot students/postdocs working in labs, not professionals with experience and a mortgage and a family, so they are more accident prone as well.

    I'm not working in a lab, but in my experience accidents happen in following circumstances:

    * People are too tired or stressed out. * People are being rushed too much. * People don't know what they are doing. * Well, small number of "Hold my beer and watch this" moments. I guess students are somewhat more prone to those.

    So if you want less accidents to happen, make working hours reasonable first (I know post-docs and students in universities work insane hours). And train them better. Of course safety equipment should be available when needed. But more red tape is not the answer, and getting higher-ups involved will wrap everything in so much red tape that getting anything done will require even more hours and frustration, probably leading to more accidents.

  • by meglon ( 1001833 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:47AM (#46426375)
    I remember my days in ochem, being partnered with a guy i went through high school with. Easily the smartest kid in the class, it was, unfortunately, all book learning. He was the most dangerous person to be around in the lab, so much so that for certain experiments he was banished to the secondary lab where no one else worked... and because almost no one could stand to be around his ego (except for me some of the time), i ended up being placed in the hinterlab just to make sure he didn't cause the world to end (or at least, his world to end).

    Undergrad labs are filled with people of widely disparate skill levels, knowledge, and understanding, and as (chem students) progress, some of the things they learn are downright dangerous. I still remember an experiment that if the glassware hadn't been dried thoroughly, if there was any water present, the unwanted byproduct would be phosgene gas. Nothing like that to perk your attention up a little when it comes to safety.

    It's great that there are labs coming around to enforcing safety more, but there should be little surprise that it was needed.
  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @07:24AM (#46426773)

    Typical research at a university involves trying to find out what happens when you do something new. They keep trying until they find something that works or that is interesting. It's fundamental research. Companies typically do more applied research - optimizing things.

    At a company, you have to gather 15 signatures before you can start a fundamenal science experiment with unknown outcome. At university, you just go ahead. Companies typically outsource such experiments to universities (or they just pick up on the research after a PhD student put in a few years of good work). It's not the same type of work, so you should not compare the risks. Test pilots also have a higher risk of injury than a commercial pilot.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @10:53AM (#46427695)
    There's also the fact that industrial labs often have routine things they do (mix up these chemicals, repeat until the patent expires in a decade or two) while academic labs have fewer. Academic labs aren't generally suited to doing one thing over and over again, there's a high turnover of people and more incentive through profits to optimize standard operating procedures in private industries.

    That can lead to increased safety: if you have a protocol you follow every day, it's probably pretty well thought out, with potential dangerous parts examined closely. Liability, etc.

    Meanwhile, me in an academic lab, I'm kind of flying by the seat of my pants at all times, since I'm supposed to be doing new things. "Okay, I'll just pipette off this and put it in the... oh... is this water or is this that horrible carcinogen? I can't remember... What am I even doing, I got really into this Taylor Swift song..."

"An organization dries up if you don't challenge it with growth." -- Mark Shepherd, former President and CEO of Texas Instruments