A Study on Lab Safety Will Consider Behavioral Science
By PAUL BASKEN
SAFETY ADVOCATES have been holding out hope that the un- precedented criminal prosecution of a University of California professor, Patrick G. Harran,
might finally persuade researchers
to take laboratory safety more seriously.
But the federally chartered National Research Council isn’t waiting to find out.
The council, an independent
provider of scientific advice, has
convened a commission to begin
a yearlong analysis of what steps
might help quell a rash of lab accidents on university campuses.
And in a relatively new approach,
partly reflecting the circumstances
of the Harran case, the study’s director has included on the commission several behavioral scientists,
hoping that they will help the panel
figure out why already-understood
safety practices are so often ignored
by lab personnel.
“In a lot of ways, when you’re
talking about a safety culture, it’s
a heavily social-sciences problem,”
said the director, Douglas C. Fried-
man, a program officer at the Na-
tional Academy of Sciences. “It’s an
institutional- or an organizational-
behavior issue, and you really need
people who are experts in those is-
Hard numbers are difficult
to compile, in part because of
the widespread assumption that
many accidents go unreported.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and
Hazard Investigation Board,
an independent federal agency,
counted nearly 120 accidents
at university labs in the decade
ending in 2011.
The head of Mr. Friedman’s
division, Dorothy Zolandz, has
JACK HOLLINGS WOR TH, CORBIS
The National Research Council is beginning a yearlong analysis of what can be done to stop a rash of lab accidents
on university campuses. In a relatively new approach, behavioral scientists will take part in the review.
“In a lot of ways,
when you’re talking
about a safety
culture, it’s a heavily
tant, died from burns suffered in
December 2008 after she spilled
a chemical compound that ignites
suddenly when exposed to air. She
was not wearing a protective lab-safety coat, and testimony in the
case portrayed Mr. Harran as not
insistent on such safeguards.
Mr. Harran has repeatedly denied the charges and is fighting
only to have some researchers resist the rules as unnecessarily intrusive. “There was a lot of skepticism” among faculty members, said
James H. Gibson, assistant vice
chancellor for environment, health,
and safety at UCLA.
While still rare, the inclusion
of social scientists in crafting responses to such problems is slowly
gaining acceptance, Ms. Roberts
said. Those changes are occurring
on study commissions, including
those chartered by the National
Academies, and on government
accident-investigation boards, she
“Only recently, within the last
few years, have these people recog-
nized that this isn’t all that causes
a serious accident or that keeps
the place really running safe,” Ms.
Roberts said, referring to written
rules and regulations. “It’s what the
people do in the organization that
has something to do with causing
She looks for lessons from “high
reliability” organizations, such as
the Federal Aviation Administra-
tion, whose air-traffic controllers
have a remarkably good safety re-
cord over all. The FAA’s examples
of successful tactics include em-
phasizing redundancy, in which
supervisors literally stand behind
controllers and watch them man-
age traffic flow.
As a more general rule, howev-
er, successful organizations have
leaders who insist on safety from
the top of the managerial chain,
Ms. Roberts said. And that may
be one area in which universi-
ties, with their culture of diffuse
responsibility, are institutionally
weaker than corporations are, Mr.
said that “anecdotally,” the problem appears worse at universities
than in industry.
Chief among the anecdotes is
the case of Mr. Harran, a professor of chemistry at the University
of California at Los Angeles, who
faces the possibility of four and a
half years in prison after a forthcoming trial over the accidental
death of a 23-year-old scientist in
Mr. Harran, the nation’s first
faculty member to face felony
prosecution over a lab accident, is
accused of willfully violating state
occupational health and safety
Testimony in the preliminary
phases of the case suggested
that while the lab rules may not
have been perfect, neither Mr.
Harran nor the victim, Sheharba-
no Sangji, always followed them.
Ms. Sangji, a staff research assis-
The National Research Council
has chosen as chair of the study
commission H. Holden Thorp,
departing chancellor of the Uni-
versity of North Carolina at Cha-
pel Hill, who this summer will
become provost and a professor of
chemistry and medicine at Wash-
ington University in St. Louis. He
is among several chemistry pro-
fessors on the 13-member panel.