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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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  • by Carewolf ( 581105 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:12AM (#46426297) Homepage

    It is anything like my university, the chemistry labs keep blowing up due to students trying to make illegal drugs off hours.

    • by ameoba ( 173803 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:20AM (#46426435)

      Our problem was Electrical Engineering grad students continually burning popcorn in the microwave.

      Yeah... the admissions standards were a little soft.

    • by usuallylost ( 2468686 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @08:22AM (#46427203)

      Are you sure it is just the students?

      One of my professors in college told me that when he was a graduate student one of his professors got arrested. The guy and a group of his grad students had been cooking up significant amounts of drugs in one of the schools labs after hours. They were using them to throw big drug parties. According to my professor the primary goal of the whole operation was to help them pickup members of a certain sorority that liked to attend the parties. One of the students involved got arrested which lead back to the professor and brought the whole thing down.

    • One of my roommates in college was in the pharmacy program and had a *lot* of parties at our house. It quickly became clear that the they were in the program because, duh, "That's where the drugs are".

    • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @09:53AM (#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..."
      • by Shinobi ( 19308 )

        Industry also has another thing that leads to increased safety: Avoidance of solvent stills for example. Another factor is that in industry, you often work in scale, which leads to avoiding highly exothermic reactions that work fine in academic lab scale, but goes BOOM when you scale it up above 10cl or so...

      • by pepty ( 1976012 )
        The "11x safer" part of the article seems to be referring to research labs at Dow vs university labs, not manufacturing facilities. Some of those industry labs will be doing work on scaling up synthesis, but overall since its research it's not that repetitive.

        The big difference between industrial and academic labs is in the consequences for accidents and safety infractions. Accidents or not wearing safety gear or ignoring other safety rules can have a big effect on the bottom line of a company: OSHA, fir

        • http://www.starlite.nih.gov/ [nih.gov]
          "Work with your colleagues (some humanoid, some not) to complete quests in a lab. The STAR-LITE laboratory can be chaotic and safety violations will occur. You will make critical safety decisions to ensure that you and your colleagues work safely in a lab. STAR-LITE (Safe Techniques Advance Research â" Laboratory Interactive Training Environment) is an innovative and groundbreaking method to learn about laboratory safety techniques. STAR-LITE was inspired by and is dedicated

          • by pepty ( 1976012 )
            The big crunch isn't just academia, at least in organic/medicinal chemistry. Universities quit hiring more full time professors at the same time Pharma started unloading PhDs.
          • But part of it also may be poor training coupled with a youthful sense of invulnerability of students the young.


            I know for a fact that I did things when I was a youth (mid-teens to mid-20s) which I knew were pretty dangerous and not very smart at the time, and which make me shudder today. Kids, on the other hand, just seem to keep on killing themselves, and never getting any better at not killing themselves. Cars, drugs, and histrionics over sex/ love seeming to remain the biggest killers, but with a

      • Nah - there's a process called a hazard analysis [osha.gov] that should reveal the potential hazards of what somebody is doing. Why these aren't performed at an academic institution is a separate problem. The problem in academic institutions which doesn't exist in either corporate or government research labs is a lack of line management responsibility. The university culture generally allows for throwing a professor (or even a department) under the bus when something goes wrong and OSHA has allowed them to get away

    • Education is a funny thing.
      It has all the trappings of a big business, however there is utter dislike of the idea that they run like a business.

      Because getting a Professorship job is so hard in Academia and a pressure to obtain tenure is so high, that they will be more willing to skip steps in order to get the next big thing out. If someone dies in the process, that means there is now a job opening.

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      In my undergraduate university, the computer science department installed air extractors in the computer labs. But the workmen got the installation the wrong way round and they extracted exhaust fumes from the chemistry department air system back into the computer lab. People were starting to feel sick and turning funny colors.

      In another college, one of the entrances was actually right next to the outdoor storage tanks for liquid nitrogen. Valves would be hissing with little clouds of gas around them.

      • by JP205 ( 263673 )
        That hissing sound is normal. They are releasing excess pressure from the boil off.
    • by pepty ( 1976012 )
      Wow, your chem labs had off hours? How quaint. A professor I knew was known for taking new hires aside and saying "The state says I have to give you 14 days vacation every year. Which weekends do you want?". He was half joking.
  • by blackraven14250 ( 902843 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:15AM (#46426313)
    Possibly valid, but the estimate in question seems to only be based in a remark by Dow Chemical's CTO. Not exactly the kind of thing that you'd expect to be news alone. In fact, the article is about the safety procedures they've implemented at University of Minnesota in conjunction with Dow, not a comparison between industry and academia as the title implies.
    • I believe it. The labs my wife work at the UM were never held to the same standards as an industrial or government lab. Safety, MSDS, and OHSA rules were ignored and never enforced. PI's have no management background in those areas and were more concerned with the life of getting published and securing another grant, a whole other topic.
      • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

        Yup, having worked in both I can vouch that the industrial labs are much safer. There really is no expense spared when it comes to the basic OSHA compliance (ventilation, use of PPE, etc). You can be fired for not wearing your eyewear in a lab, and you're talking about a career that would be hard to replace. There are safety procedures for everything, and monitoring of safety equipment like HVAC. People take it seriously, and when there is any kind of adverse trend in safety it becomes a talking point a

    • It seems the CTO of Dow is forgetting certain events [wikipedia.org] which a company that Dow now owns caused a few years ago. If academic labs are 11 times more dangerous then somewhere we must have lost about 176,000 grad students which I think might have been noticed by now even if it were spread out over a few decades.

      Besides academic labs are doing research which means that outcomes are not known and you are doing things which have not been done before. This is inherently more risky than repeating established proce
      • Industrial labs do research. Many of your favorite petrochemical products were designed in industrial laboratories.
  • Really? (Score:5, Funny)

    by rebelwarlock ( 1319465 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:27AM (#46426337)
    Students less likely to follow safety procedures. News at 11.
    • Re:Really? (Score:5, Informative)

      by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:10AM (#46426549)

      No. An over simplification of the matter. The reality is when I was at university there was no safety messages from the faculty, absolutely nothing from on high. Oh, we were told to wash our hands after working with solder because it wasn't lead free and to not put it in our mouth but that is it.

      First day in industry, fume extractors, safety glasses, soldering irons with deadman switches in case they were left on absolutely no use of a knife without wearing some gloves.

      This isn't students not following safety procedures, this is no safety procedures existing. The head of our school stood right next to me while I was stripping wires by holding the wire between my thumb and a very sharp knife, nothing was said. When a student heated a wire under tension the semester I left and it flicked molten solder in his eye, nothing happened. At my work the HSE team would have lost their collective shits.

      • The EE lab at my university had safety practices mirroring the industry, but none of the more academic departments did.
    • by flyneye ( 84093 )

      Well..theyre learning to operate in the real world. Put OSHA on their asses with regular surprise inspections, make them sit through hours of tedious HAZMAT safety classes, DHS security classes and environmental impact classes and for good measure give them forklift training even if they will never use one. THAT is closer to the real industrial world. If they do not comply with the rules , throw them out of the course, just for a touch of realism.
      Soon students will follow safety procedures and possibly ques

    • by Dabido ( 802599 )
      Have to agree. Not all students are bright enough to be in labs. When I was at Uni, we had one guy who, after everyone got told NOT to sniff the chloroform, said, 'Why not?' and sniffed it. He was in a coma for a few weeks, and then when he came out of it tried to sue the University for not giving him sufficient warning. The lawsuit failed. A lot of us had always wondered how he got into Uni in the first place, as he was thick as two bricks and very weird. (Weird, as in, turned up to our geology field
  • On first reading, I thought that would be Department of Works or something. Since when is DOW capitalized? It's named after a person.
  • by coder111 ( 912060 ) <coder@@@rrmail...com> on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:32AM (#46426347)
    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 thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:18AM (#46426563)

      Ahh yes the old blame the worker. Sorry but I've witnessed accidents happen at uni that simply wouldn't happen in industry due to some very simple safety guidelines such as put on safety glasses while soldering. It seemed really silly to me when I got out of uni that people wore glasses / goggles to solder, but it didn't seem to silly a semester after I graduated when I heard a student managed to fling solder in his eye.

      The problem is two fold:
      a) students are quite gungho when it comes to their work and will quickly take shortcuts because they don't know any better or don't have the right tools, example: I didn't see a wire stripper till I got to industry, I used to do it by pressing the wire to a knife using my thumb and I got many cuts as a result.
      b) complete lack of protective gear. You piss off the idea of PPE because it's been applied too haphazardly by HSE idiots who think protective gear should be worn everywhere at all times, but that is no excuse for not wearing it when you are actually doing potentially dangerous work or working in a potentially dangerous area.

      The whole ground breaking research stuff is a load of crap. There's just as much if not more ground-breaking research in industry as there is in a university lab. There needs to be a middle ground.

      • by Shinobi ( 19308 )

        "a) students are quite gungho when it comes to their work and will quickly take shortcuts because they don't know any better or don't have the right tools, example: I didn't see a wire stripper till I got to industry, I used to do it by pressing the wire to a knife using my thumb and I got many cuts as a result."

        Students being the only gung-ho ones? Bwahahahahaha.... Students being gung-ho is a result of PI's and others not having a proper safety mindset, or even deliberately pushing students to ignore safe

        • s/students/academia

          The point was that culture in the universities in general does not promote safety. I'm going to hazard that it is a lack of unions willing to sue the company for better conditions / pay increases every time someone stubs a toe. The classic argument: "My job is not a safe job so I deserve to get paid more."

          The shit we did at uni would be instant dismissal in some companies.

      • Sorry for late response, but where did I say "blame the worker"?

        I did point out that IMO main causes of accidents are stress,fatigue,haste and inexperience/incompetence/lack of training and "gung-ho" attitude.

        Stress, fatigue and haste are mostly down to failed project management- workers are pushed to do long hours, and frustrated or stressed because of lack of progress or bad management or low pay. This is all down to management. Lack of training/inexperience/incompetence is also quite often a manageme
        • Yes that is true. Most injuries are the result of some human factor. But if you drop back to the human factor you are blaming the worker when the problem isn't the worker but rather the system. If your intention was to blame the system then right on, I misunderstood you.

          The point of HSE is to reduce the human factor and to eliminate possible consequences. If you can't ensure people are always giving 100% and not dropping spanners then make sure people walking under them wear a hard hat. That is the point. A

    • Yes, wrap everything in red tape and "health and safety", wear a helmet and a high visibility jacket all the time ...

      I'm just going to leave these here:

  • When I consider that I leave the lab after a 10 hour day (plus breaks) and everyone is wondering why I leave already, 12 hour workdays or longer are the standard and at least 50% of the staff is here on weekends also, I do not wonder why they are more dangerous.... Despite of this we are only payed for 20h/week and the administration gives a sh*** about work regulations... Kind regards from a academic biology lab in germany where the default working hours for a full time job are 40h a week or less.
  • by meglon ( 1001833 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:47AM (#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.
    • I tutored an electrical engineering class and one student asked me how to use the soldering iron. I told them to hold it like a pencil. So they did.... right at the end of the tip like a pencil.

      Ignore for the fact that soldering irons are designed to get hot, and that part of the iron clearly had a nice rubber grip to hold, some people (and this is not confined to universities) have such little common sense it's a wonder their lived as long as they did.

      • by meglon ( 1001833 )
        Bet he had a burning desire to be learn proper safety practices after that. David Gerrold said it best: "Common sense isn't."
      • Mmm, the sweet smell of freshly cut grass...

        For those that don't know, phosgene has been reported to smell like a freshly-cut field.

    • by sl3xd ( 111641 )

      I can't agree more. I have trouble understanding how people don't get that students don't come with all of the knowledge they need to be 'safe.' They are there to learn. Many lessons are from making mistakes - often bad ones.

      The number of ways to produce surprisingly harmful substances by accident is large, as is the number of students whom haven't discovered their own mortality yet.

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:49AM (#46426377) Homepage

    A group of grad students and postdocs in Minnesota decided to address the issue had-on.

    Well, that typo could've been worse.

  • The results might be somewhat different, of course, if industrial labs didn't conduct most of their investigations "in-house". (snicker)

  • ... when my lab supervisor told me I didn't have what it takes to be a biologist and gave me a B-.
  • by Alomex ( 148003 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:41AM (#46426613) Homepage

    There are no bad experimental chemists.

    Not for long anyhow....

    • You want to weed them out, have them do experiments with halogens. Fluorine, Chlorine, and Bromine do not react in kind and gentle ways with a great many things, including students.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Where I worked, the industrial regulations didn't apply, the budget needed to work safe wasn't there, half the lab workers were inexperienced students, and most of the machines and experiments were so cutting-edge that no one on the planet could predict how they'd behave. This anomalous behaviour sometimes included emitting röntgen laser beams in unpredictable directions. One of my professors had a black spot in his eye for that very reason.

  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @06:24AM (#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.

    • Ok, I actually take back everything I just wrote (above). If basic things like 'bringing food into a lab' or 'wearing lab coats and gloves in an office' actually still go wrong, then they should just start acting professional, and this is a good thing.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]
      In my university (in the Netherlands), this is already common for at least 15 years.

    • 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.

      test pilots also do everything to mitigate the risks. Safety is not about not doing inherently risky things; it's about minimizing those risks. It involves assessing the risks, eliminating them where possible, and taking steps to mitigate those you can't eliminate. It also means ensuring people don't do stupid things like not wear safety gear, work on energized equipment, rather than deenergize it, simply to save time, or take any of the hundreds of other shortcuts on the mistaken belief it can't happen to

    • Safety is about learning to do things with good technique. Surgeons learn good sterile technique--and many operations are improvisational. Precisely the same thing: If you know what you're doing, you can skillfully and safely handle the unexpected. The idea that safety in industry is about filling out forms is also false. Unfortunately it's a tale that many academic scientists repeatedly tell themselves, and it helps reinforce the (lazy) status quot. (I do not mean that people working in academic labs are
  • by physicsphairy ( 720718 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @07:21AM (#46426991) Homepage

    IMHO the issue is that academia is not really a hierarchy like in industry. At a big school the freshman labs will be plenty paranoid about safety because of legal liabilities, but once you're talking about professors' private research projects, it's more like a hobbyist working in their basement, and in that situation we're all inclined to become comfortable and take shortcuts. Part of it, also, is the assumption that anyone with a degree comes packaged with knowledge of proper lab technique. What you will find is that, especially when you are talking students and Ph.D.s from different countries, they were trained differently. We have a lot of Russians who seem particularly cavalier. (honestly, if Chernobyl had't already happened, I might be expecting it).

  • ... address the issue had-on.

    Had-on? Really?

  • As a graduate research assistant, doing a series of tests ordered by the research professor, in a supposedly inspected fume hood, using glacial acetic acid. Waking up the next morning hacking up pieces of my throat and lungs, and being told to go to the student medical clinic. Being given some antibiotics -I had to pay for myself-. Later seeing the same damn fume hood being used by others weeks later, including myself. No changes or fixes done at all, at any time. Well, at least I got my name on a major res

  • Where will the next Spider-man com from if not an academic lab?

  • And I bet high school parking lots are far more likely to see an accident than your local strip mall parking lot. The people using the former are mostly people with no driving experience.
  • by Wdi ( 142463 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @08:50AM (#46427343)

    To those posters claiming that these are sensationalistic numbers, or fake statistics:

    This problem is well known among professional chemists, and there have been a string of high-profile accidents in recent years (and very expensive settlements for involved universities as a result).

    The ACS (American Chemical Society) has instituted a task force to guide academia in establishing a better safety culture..

    See for example


  • That's what one of the lab supervisors I worked with at an old job used to write up on the accident reports of about half the students who hurt themselves. Picked up a piece of glass without checking to see if it was hot? You've got some nice blisters to go with that learnin'. Forgot to check the stopcock on a buret and dumped concentrated NaOH all over your experiment and books? (That was me) Oh well, buy another book. Ice shifts suddenly while you're trying to get a beaker full of fuming nitric acid
  • Of course more accidents happen there. Safety is hard! Why bother when you have an endless supply of easily replaceable grad assistants?

  • Sure It's not hard-on? :P

Is a person who blows up banks an econoclast?