Know the Importance of Lab Safety in Biomedical Research

Funding News Edition: June 15, 2022
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April 2011, Yale University: Undergraduate Michele Default was working alone at night in a machine shop when her hair became caught in the rapidly spinning shaft of a lathe. She was unable to free herself and died of asphyxiation.

December 2008, UCLA: Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji was setting up a chemical reaction using the reagent t-butyllithium, which can spontaneously ignite if it comes into contact with air. While transferring the reagent in a 60-ml plastic syringe, the plunger came out and the compound ignited—along with Sheri’s clothes. She was not wearing a lab coat, received extensive third-degree burns, and eventually passed away.

January 2006, Texas A&M University: A liquid nitrogen tank that had been improperly modified to seal its pressure release valves (presumably because the valves had failed in the past) exploded in the middle of the night in a lab.

To help prevent incidents such as those above, establishing and following best practices in lab activities is paramount. Whether you are a principal investigator (PI), student, or trainee at a lab conducting NIH-funded research, be sure you know the importance of lab safety.

If you need an introduction or a refresher on the topic, a good place to start is the presentation Developing a Culture of Safety in Biomedical Research by National Institute of General Medical Sciences Director Dr. Jon Lorsch. He covers why institutions should increase their efforts to develop cultures of safety in their biomedical research and training efforts.

Students, in particular, might want to pay close attention to the segments on how institutions can teach students to conduct hazard assessments as part of experimental design (go to minute 21:40 of the presentation). Additional related resources are linked at the end of this article.

How To Protect Yourself

While leaders at institutions must possess the values and behaviors that emphasize safety in both the laboratory and clinical setting, those who are working in labs must take safety seriously and take precautions to protect themselves. For instance:

  • Wear eye protection. It is often common for biomedical researchers, especially in academic labs, to not protect their eyes. As a result, there have been serious injuries because people were not wearing eye protection.
  • If possible, in lieu of traditional white lab coats, use treated coats, which provide flame resistance and have a barrier that prevents polar materials from penetrating the coat.
  • Additionally, look for and read safety data sheets as well as conduct hazard assessments of chemicals and other materials with which you are working.
  • Have a checklist that includes questions such as: Are we eliminating hazards or substituting where we can? Are we putting in the appropriate controls? Is personal protective equipment available and being used?

Resources Related to Developing a Culture of Safety in Biomedical Research

  • Paper published in Molecular Biology of the Cell
  • Podcast featuring Dr. Jyllian N. Kemsley, manager of C&E News’ Safety Zone, and Dr. Craig A. Merlic, executive director of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety

On a related note, read NIAID’s Responsible Conduct of Research—Training SOP, which includes guidance for institutions and principal investigators on including a plan for carrying out instruction in responsible conduct of research.

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