Last time we asked you to look back to when you first started working in a lab and all was new and challenging. We asked you to step back and look at your physical laboratory with “fresh eyes.” We all know it is human nature to become complacent and relaxed in a familiar and comfortable setting. Things become routine with the lab feeling like home, comfortable and secure. In the beginning of your career you were probably a bit on edge when starting each procedure, more focused on not messing things up and producing results than anything else. You may have been somewhat awed by the equipment, the chemicals, the procedures, and the ease with which the others in the lab moved from task to task. You watched the others with more experience around you and took their lead on how to generally conduct yourself or approach specific operations. Some things might have looked or felt wrong, or even dangerous, but you saw the others not give them a second glance. They were your mentors and were the keepers of the lab tradition so it must be OK. As this was all new, you took it all in and accepted it as the way it should be.
Now, there are years in the lab under your belt. You have seen success, had some close calls, and probably some mishaps. You are now one of the leaders and keepers of tradition. As we said in our previous article, yoga instructors often say we should close our eyes and open them as a child to see the world anew. Thus we would ask again that you do the same with your laboratory and take a walk through your lab, observing your staff, looking at all with the eyes of a child, with unprejudiced honesty of all you see.
Those in your lab may be your colleagues or may be people assigned to you to produce results and for whom you have responsibility. If you are the lab manager, you are the mentor and they will follow your lead and the tone you set for conduct in the lab. Are staff members making good choices? Are they sufficiently skilled to be doing the tasks necessary for their assignment? Do you intervene when necessary? Most of the science world has heard of the recent tragedy at UCLA where Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant, died as a result of severe burns received during an experiment. Though we are not privy to information beyond the public press and professional news groups,1-4 it appears this was a case of an inadequately trained scientist performing a dangerous procedure without proper instruction, equipment, and supervision. It appears to be a case where ad hoc procedures were used in a casual atmosphere where great care and strict adherence to protocol was actually needed. “It was totally preventable,” said Neal Langerman, a San Diego consultant and former head of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health and Safety, whose members were given a detailed account of the incident by a University of California safety official.”1 Now, envision speaking with the parents or spouse of someone in your lab who suffered a serious injury or even worse, died, and they ask you why this happened. Could anything have been done to prevent it? From our years practicing safety in lab environments and investigating accidents, the answer is almost always “yes.” It is important to remember that in some states criminal investigation and prosecution of management officials is possible should a fatality occur and they were empowered to prevent it.