Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lab Safety

Source: "Danger in School Labs: Accidents Haunt Experimental Science," Beryl Lieff Benderly, Scientific American, August 2010.

There is a movement to improve laboratory safety in American universities. The article holds that there is a culture of safety in American industrial labs, but not in American university research labs. Even though there is little data on university lab accidents, the article cites anecdotal evidence that such accidents occur, sometimes involving students, and sometimes fatal.

My own experience in a small commercial research company many years ago suggested that there were severe problems. I recall a large gas canister, the regulator broken off, breaking loose and flying down the building breaking through lab walls. I recall an accident in a Florine research project that hospitalized two people, one for months. I recall a flock of animals killed by an accidental gas release. And I recall a B52 crashed in a test of an experimental flight warning system.

I suspect that there are more lab accidents per laboratory in developing nations, since in many developing nations safety procedures are relatively underdeveloped.

It seems to me that laboratory safety is an ethical issue for scientists, for university and research laboratory administrators, and for funding agencies. Indeed, it is one of several ethical issues including the ethical treatment of human subjects, the ethical treatment of animals involved in the research, and the containment of risks to others created by research (containment of poisons, pathogens and pests, containment of dangers to the environment).

I note that UNESCO has a program focused on the ethics of science, but has apparently never undertaken an effort to reduce these research-related risks in developing nations. Capacity building and policy advice are areas in which UNESCO might be useful.

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