Science + Technology

New lab safety center underscores campus leadership in emerging field

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UCLA has created the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety to support research in this emerging field and facilitate the translation of results into best practices on the campus, as well as at other universities and research organizations.

The new center — believed to be the first of its kind in the country — aims to serve as a resource for other institutions, as UCLA emerges as a leader in developing programs intended to ensure safety in research labs. In recent months, dozens of universities, regulatory agencies, private research operations and trade organizations have sought detailed information about UCLA's lab safety programs and have requested presentations by campus personnel.

"At UCLA, our goal is nothing less than laboratory safety programs that are emulated by other major research universities, and the UC Center for Laboratory Safety is an important step forward on that path," Chancellor Gene Block said. "By developing and sharing best practices, we aid not only our own efforts but those of other University of California campuses and other institutions across the country."

One example of research to be conducted is an analysis of the effects of enhanced inspection, training and regulatory efforts on accidents and injuries at UCLA and other campuses, utilizing before-and-after data from multiple campuses.

"While we've made great progress in enhancing our lab safety programs, we need empirical data to demonstrate the impact on what's most important — the conditions in labs and the safety of those who work in them," said Nancy Wayne, UCLA associate vice chancellor for research overseeing laboratory safety, a position created in 2010 to enhance coordination between faculty researchers and campus regulators.

"This type of research would not be possible without the formal infrastructure provided by the center, which is necessary to support the work," said Wayne, a professor of physiology who manages a research lab.

Lab safety has received increased attention across the country since the December 2008 lab fire that led to the tragic death of a staff research associate at UCLA. Since then, campus health and safety officials have made comprehensive and wide-ranging enhancements to programs intended to ensure safety in research labs.

For example, the UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) has developed a hazard-assessment tool that labs are required to update annually or when conditions change. Principal investigators must quantify chemical, biological and other hazards; specify protective equipment; train personnel in the use of protective equipment specific to lab activities; and provide written documentation. In January 2010, the campus adopted a more encompassing policy on the required use of personal protective equipment (PPE). In 2009 and 2010, more than 5,000 employees received training in the use of protective gear.

Moreover, UCLA has dramatically increased the number of lab inspections, from 365 in 2007 to almost 2,400 in 2010. Inspection protocols are more rigorous and include more than 60 additional inspection parameters — 23 of which require corrective action within 48 hours. All inspection reports are completed and provided to laboratory managers within one business day of the inspection. Additionally, unannounced inspections began in summer 2010.

In support of toughened regulatory efforts, multiple resources have been placed online, including a comprehensive lab safety manual and a chemical hygiene plan, and safety and training videos related to lab safety.

EH&S director James Gibson has made presentations at the request of the National Academy of Sciences, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the College Safety Health and Environmental Management Association, and other regulatory and academic bodies and professional associations. Most recently, Gibson gave a talk at the American Chemical Society's national meeting and exposition in Anaheim, Calif., on March 29. (Video)
 
In addition, dozens of universities and colleges from across the country (including the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University and Louisiana State University), major research institutions in both the public and private sectors, and regulatory agencies have sought information or requested permission to use various elements of UCLA's lab safety programs. Requests for information have come from as far away as Hong Kong and British Columbia, Canada.

The multiple queries and demand for data-driven best practices underscore the importance of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, Wayne said.

Wayne chairs the new center's advisory board, which comprises representatives of various academic departments at UCLA, campus and UC systemwide environmental health and safety offices, and the private sector. Gibson will serve as the center's executive director, overseeing day-to-day operations. The advisory board's vice chair is professor Hilary Godwin, associate dean of academic programs at the UCLA School of Public Health.

To get the new center off the ground, the Chancellor's Office has provided $250,000 in startup funding over three years, while the University of California Office of the President has added an additional $150,000.

"Our aim is to make the UC Center for Laboratory Safety self-sustaining, with support from external funding agencies that have a vested interest in safety in research labs," Gibson said. "Interest is very high across the country, given that there is no other research center of this type and very limited standards for best practices."

Among the center's first orders of business is organizing a kickoff conference in early 2012.
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