Training for Laboratory Personnel

You may have noticed several links to articles about the tragic death at UCLA. Unfortunately we learn safety by accident. What I mean by that is we become hyper safety conscious after an accident. This unfortunately is human nature and is not just seen within academia and research. All of us can recall close calls in which we cheated serious injury or death and afterwards we modified our behavior to prevent a reoccurrence. Often these changes are the usage of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) or modification of procedures. I can recall a conversation with a laboratory worker who stated that early in his career he was working in a laboratory while wearing a neck tie which came very close to being caught in an unguarded vacuum pump. He no longer wears a tie in a laboratory. Sadly we often forget about our near misses or feel that laboratory accidents we read about can’t happen to us, and we go back to our unsafe behavior.


Sanji “Sherri” Sheharbano did not survive her close call. Her death has released a fire storm of safety awareness across the country. The fallout from her death has resulted in manslaughter charges filed against the Principal Investigator of the laboratory and multi-million dollar fines levied against UCLA. I cannot stress the importance of reading the following document (click here). This document is the report from the accident and death investigation.


There are 3 questions that are repeated throughout this report that you must ask yourself if you are the Principal Investigator of a laboratory as you are ultimately responsible for everything that goes on in your laboratory.


Question 1: Do you enforce the usage of appropriate PPE in your laboratory? If you witness personnel in your laboratory working without the appropriate PPE you MUST take action. Have you provided your laboratory personnel with ALL the PPE needed to do their job? This is a reoccurring theme throughout the UCLA report.


Question 2: Are you aware of what your employees and students are doing in your laboratory? A Principal Investigator MUST make routine visits to their laboratory as they are ultimately responsible for all activities that go on inside of their laboratory. When was the last time you took a close look at your laboratory space? Do you notice stains on the floors? Do you notice stains on your employee’s lab coats? Do you notice clutter? Do you notice improper chemical storage? Are your fume hoods being used properly? Can you definitively answer any of these questions?


Question 3: Are your employees properly trained? Please read the “What Training do I need” article in this newsletter for guidance on required University wide training. You must also document training of your laboratory personnel on laboratory specific procedures. Our training provides the basics, you furnish the specifics. What hazardous chemicals are being used in your department? Any pyrophorics? Any water reactives? Do you know what chemicals are in your lab? Are your employees trained on the use of these hazardous chemicals and do you have written standard operating procedures (SOPs)? Do you have documentation to prove that you have trained your employees on the SOPs in your laboratory?


You are not alone. I have a question I have to ask myself as the Chemical Hygiene Officer for our campus. Does the University permit Principal Investigators to violate safety regulations without consequence? Yes, this is actually mentioned in the document as is the following statement about the safety culture in UCLA laboratories: “…It was kind of common knowledge that laboratory people don’t use the proper PPE when they are in the lab… it was hard to convince the professors that they needed to…and if the professors didn’t enforce it, nobody did. Because…EH&S didn’t enforce things like that.” Can this statement be made about your laboratory?


I hope everyone reads this report and can learn from Sherri’s death. It is unfortunate that she had to give her life to improve the safety culture in academia, but I hope her legacy lives on. Just as we strive to excel as an academic institution, we must strive to excel as a safe institution. Make your safety personal, understand your responsibilities and partner with EHS to ensure safety and compliance within your laboratory. An environment that is one of education and correction can be effective and is much more pleasant than one of enforcement.