In the November 18 issue of the journal Nature, husband and wife team Dana Ménard and John Trant paint a troubling picture of lab safety in academia today. Despite advances in scientific knowledge, the article reveals, the level of safety in academic laboratories still leaves much to be desired.

Here are some of the article’s more terrifying statistics:

  • 25-38% of lab personnel surveyed have been involved in an accident or injury in the lab that was not reported to the supervisor or principal investigator.
  • 27% of researchers stated that they never conducted any kind of risk assessment before performing laboratory work. Academic researchers were the least likely to assess risk, followed by industry and government.
  • In one study of lab safety between 1966 and 1984, 81% of accidents occurred in teaching labs, 13% in research labs and 2% in fabrication rooms.
  • Only 40% of researchers surveyed reported wearing PPE at all times when working.
  • 25% of researchers had not been trained in the specific hazard with which they worked.
  • Articles in chemistry journals seldom mention safety information on chemical reagents. One study looked at journal mentions of 11 hazardous compounds. These compounds were mentioned 107 times in journal articles but only one article provided cautionary information.
  • In one profile of safety incidents at research labs, virtually identical incidents occurred at the same institutions within 10–15 years, resulting in the destruction or temporary closure of the buildings.
August Kekulé

German organic chemist August Kekulé

“Overall, there’s a lack of safety culture that has been normalized,” the article concludes. Way back in 1840, German organic chemist August Kekulé was welcomed to his graduate lab with the words: “If you want to become a chemist, you have to ruin your health. Who does not ruin his health by his studies, nowadays will not get anywhere in chemistry.” Sadly, a similar dismissive, even antagonistic attitude toward safety persists in many academic laboratories today.

The problem of academic lab safety is complex, involving many interdependent factors. The Laboratory Safety Institute aims to create a culture of lab safety by offering courses aimed at not just regulatory compliance, but at making safety an integral, important part of everyone’s education, work, and life. See our course calendar.