During the past few years, UCLA has dramatically improved its lab safety programs. The Office of Environment, Health and Safety, led by Assistant Vice Chancellor James Gibson, has been largely responsible for overseeing this. In this interview, Gibson, who also serves as executive director of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, explains how the university has accomplished this and what the next steps are in UCLA’s continuing efforts to ensure lab safety.

We know UCLA has done a lot to improve lab safety through increased inspections, stronger policies on use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and a hazard assessment tool that labs must update annually, or whenever conditions change. Can you tell us a bit more about that and how we got there?
We’ve done a number of things including distributing thousands of lab coats, goggles and other PPE to researchers. Recently, we distributed PPE to more than 4,000 campus researchers at an event done in collaboration with UC Office of the President. We’ve also worked with campus researchers to improve our safety training and continue to perform unannounced PPE inspections — this is our fourth year of conducting these inspections and we continue to get better. In the first quarter of 2014, campus-wide we were at 98 percent compliance with UCLA’s PPE Policy — up from 80 to 85 percent a few years ago. This suggests a real shift in the safety culture in our laboratories. Many of our lab safety improvements are described in an article just published this month in the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety. We also have a study that we did in collaboration with the department of chemistry on some improvements that one laboratory made and that paper was submitted for publication.

How did UCLA achieve such a shift in safety culture? I’m sure people become set in their ways and it can be difficult at times and to help them realize why it’s important to change.
I attribute it primarily to the university’s leadership, from the chancellor and senior administration on down — and particularly to the principal investigators. PIs are the key to stressing the importance of lab safety to their researchers and impacting real changes in behavior. I think the institution’s leadership has done a great job of consistently conveying the importance of laboratory safety at UCLA.

Tell us about some of the other methods your office has used to spread the message.
One key way we’re trying to get the message across is through publications. Earlier, I mentioned the article we just published regarding improvements to UCLA’s lab safety program. We’ve also recently produced some videos on lab safety and safety culture. Our instructional video on glove removal does a great job of showing how to do this without contaminating oneself. We also have a safety culture video that indicates the importance of not just protecting individuals, but their loved ones, offering a broad look at why all of this is important.

How do we continue this momentum?
Education and outreach is key. But we have to make sure we balance that with competing demands on the researchers and develop better training materials that are both meaningful and valuable. We need to do a better job of working with researchers as we develop these training materials to make sure what we’re doing is smart and doesn’t interfere too much with their research efforts.

Is this an issue all labs in academia and industry alike are working on?
Yes, absolutely. While the cultures are certainly different between industry and academic labs, we’re both looking to improve and always searching for ways to learn from each other. As a result of our lab safety program improvements, we’ve had number of requests for information from other academic institutions, government agencies and private industry for materials such as our Chemical Hygiene Plan and our Laboratory Hazard Assessment Tool. We’ve been very happy to share these as part of our service mission. In turn, we’ve received valuable information from others so it’s been mutually beneficial and allowed us to learn from them as well. Many of the materials we’ve developed here at UCLA have been adapted for use at other UC campuses, most importantly the laboratory hazard assessment tool we developed.

The UC Center for Laboratory Safety, of which you serve as executive director, was established a little over three years ago now to study the issue as a scientific discipline and be a resource for best practices beyond UC. Recently you conducted an important survey with BioRAFT and Nature Publishing. Tell us a little bit about that.
This was a seminal survey sent to over 20,000 individuals and we got over 2,300 responses back, which was terrific. It was developed to gauge the state of safety culture in laboratories internationally and we got some really interesting results back that we’re actually in the process of analyzing. Very soon we plan to submit a paper for publication that explains what we found.

Can you give us a preview?
One thing we found was that in laboratories where principal investigators were present, active and engaged, the laboratories were much safer with regards to accidents and perceptions of risk amongst the researchers. While it may be conventional wisdom, it was really important to see it documented. This finding really does hammer home the importance of the PI in instilling a culture of safety.

The center has now had two workshops on lab safety that have attracted an international audience. Tell us about those.
The workshops have been very successful. We just had our last workshop in April with over 80 experts from across the country and internationally who came together to brainstorm ways to develop proposals for grants to improve laboratory safety. We’ve actually just started getting the first grant proposals in following this latest workshop. An advisory board will review them to determine which will receive grants from the center. We’re currently in the process of preparing the proceedings from our latest workshop similar to the proceedings we published from our very first workshop two years ago.

So what’s next for the center? Can you give us a preview of what’s ahead?
We’ve partnered with UC Office of the President to develop an online training consortium involving about 30 other universities across the country. The consortium will contribute subject matter experts to develop state-of-the-art laboratory safety training modules. This is an important milestone for the center as part of the funds will go toward supporting our work — bringing in an important funding stream and allowing additional grants into laboratory safety to be funded.