Community Input

Task force solicits the thoughtful and scholarly input from the Stanford Community on the current status of the Safety Culture at Stanford and how it might be improved.  Please give us your feedback (click here for link).

Responses may be submitted anonymously and will be held in the strictest confidence.  In your response we are particularly interested in your perspective on the following questions:  

(1)    what is the current state of safety habits and practices in your work or study environment,

(2)    how safely do you believe you and/or others around you carry out your/their daily research activities,

(3)    what practices or habits could be improved to enhance safety in everyday lab research activities, and

(4)     institutionally, how could Stanford respond to modify its policies, procedures, or support to enhance safety?

UCHS Task Force for Advancing the Culture of Laboratory Safety at Stanford University

Charge:  The charge to the Task Force is to report on the status of safety culture and to provide recommendations to advance a positive culture of safety within academic research laboratories at Stanford.  

Co-chairs: Task Force

  • Bruce Clemens, Professor in the School of Engineering (Materials Science and Engineering) and Professor of Photon Science at SLAC and, by courtesy, of Applied Physics, and Chairman of the University Committee on Health and Safety 
  • Robert Waymouth, Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Chemical Engineering
  • P.J. Utz, Professor of Medicine (Immunology and Rheumatology) and Program Director for the Medical School Training Program (MSTP) and Stanford Institutes of Medical Research (SIMR) Summer High School Research Program


  • Anthony Appleton, recent post-doctoral fellow in Chemical Engineering at Stanford; currently Adjunct Faculty member at Ohlone College
  • Persis Drell, Professor of Particle Physics and Astrophysics and of Physics and former Director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Mary Dougherty, EHS Industrial Hygienist and University Chemical Hygiene Officer 
  • Curtis Frank, Senior Associate Dean, School of Engineering and Sr. Professor in Engineering (Chemical Engineering) and Professor, by courtesy, of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemistry 
  • Larry Gibbs, Associate Vice Provost for EH&S
  • Linda Heneghan, Facilities Manager, Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine 
  • Loan Nguyen, Life Sciences Research Assistant, Department of Biology 
  • David Silberman, Director, Health and Safety Programs, School of Medicine; University Safety Partner Representative
  • Nickolas van Buuren, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Microbiology and Immunology
  • Jessica Vargas, PhD student in Chemistry and Member, University Committee on Health and Safety

Task Force for Advancing the Culture of Laboratory Safety at Stanford University:  Background and Context

The unique management culture in universities creates challenges for establishing and maintaining an effective and responsive culture of safety in the laboratories.  A culture of excellence pervades the research and teaching activities at Stanford.  Stanford should aspire to a similar culture of excellence for laboratory safety.  To explore opportunities to improve the safety culture at Stanford, the UCHS at Stanford, in coordination with the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of research, has convened a task force under the auspices of the University Committee on Health and Safety to review Stanford’s organization regarding laboratory safety culture and how the American Chemical Society (ACS) identified characteristics of a strong laboratory safety culture are aligned at Stanford. 1

The significance of an effective and responsive safety culture has been highlighted by several serious incidents in university research laboratories over the past four years. At UCLA, the tragic death of a laboratory staff research assistant resulted from release of a highly pyrophoric liquid during a laboratory transfer procedure, causing clothing she was wearing to catch fire.  Another serious incident involving a shock-sensitive, explosive nickel hydrazine perchlorate compound occurred at Texas Tech University in 2010.  A graduate student scaled up the synthesis of the material, making more than 10 times the amount that had been considered an upper limit by the research group.  The student suffered serious injuries to his face, an eye, and his hands, ultimately losing three fingers. Between January 2010 and October 2012, the US Chemical Safety Board documented 65 laboratory-based accidents, including two fatalities. 2

The UCLA and Texas Tech incidents have received significant review and follow up.  The Cal/OSHA investigation report on the UCLA incident and the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) report on the Texas Tech incident both pointed to a deficient safety culture within the organizations and within the research laboratories as a primary root cause.  Three common themes to advance laboratory safety culture in academic research from follow up to both incidents have emerged: the need for a good internal reporting system for incidents and near misses; the need for creation and use of standard operating procedures for hazardous materials; and the need for more comprehensive oversight of and attention to safety within academic research laboratories.

These serious incidents and the aftermath have generated significant interest among laboratory researchers and safety professionals, as evidenced by frequent editorial articles, blog posts, national and international publications, etc. Government agencies and professional societies have become more engaged in efforts to  examine the culture of safety in university research and teaching laboratories. Much discussion has centered on both the scientific details of the incidents and ways to improve laboratory safety culture to avoid future occurrences.  Some of this discussion is also motivated by the response of regulatory agencies to those accidents. Criminal charges against the UCLA chemistry professor in charge of the laboratory have sparked debate about who has ultimate responsibility for laboratory safety.  The CSB report on the Texas Tech incident has generated interest as it is the first CSB investigation of an academic laboratory accident and one recommendation of the CSB is that federal grant funding agencies review and utilize principal investigator safety and compliance records as a qualifier for awarding funding.  These specific topics are, however, rooted in the more basic problem of determining how best to promote and advance a positive safety culture within academic research laboratories.

Although there has been much review of what could have been done differently in the reported incidents, a broader discussion has emerged on how to prevent laboratory research related incidents from occurring, and how to ensure that all academic researchers (faculty, lab managers, research associates/assistants, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students) are better informed of laboratory safety risks and become more involved through enhancement and advancement of safety culture throughout laboratory research in higher education.

Key lessons reported from the Chemical Safety Board investigation of the Texas Tech incident3  include: 

  1. An academic institution modeling its laboratory safety management plan after OSHA’s Laboratory Standard (29 CFR 1910.1450) should ensure that all safety hazards, including physical hazards of chemicals, be addressed.
  2. Academic institutions should ensure that practices and procedures are in place to verify that research-specific hazards are identified, evaluated and mitigated.
  3. Comprehensive guidance on managing the hazards unique to laboratory chemical research in the academic environment is lacking. Current standards on hazard evaluations, risk assessments, and hazard mitigation are geared toward industrial settings and are not fully transferable to the academic research laboratory environment. 
  4. Research-specific written protocols and training are necessary to manage laboratory research risk. 
  5. An academic institution’s organizational structure should ensure that the safety inspector/auditor of research laboratories directly report to an identified individual/office with organizational authority to implement safety improvements. 
  6. Near-misses and previous incidents provide opportunities for education and improvement only if they are documented, tracked, and communicated to drive safety change.

In 2012, the American Chemical Society (ACS) assembled a task force to report on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.”4   Their report defines safety culture as “a reflection of the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of its members toward safety” and suggests seven characteristics of a strong organizational safety culture:

  1. Strong Leadership and Management for Safety
  2. Continuous Learning about Safety
  3. Strong Safety Attitudes, Awareness and Ethics
  4. Learning from Incidents
  5. Collaborative Efforts to Build Safety Culture
  6. Promoting and Communicating Safety
  7. Institutional Support for Funding Safety

The ACS report focuses on and emphasizes the importance of safety education in undergraduate teaching and academic research laboratories.  The authors of the report expect that strong safety education during undergraduate studies will translate to graduate students (who form the bulk of research personnel in academia) with stronger safety ethics and lead to stronger safety cultures in academic labs. The prior Cal/OSHA follow up and Chemical Safety Board recommendations both focus significantly on the need for evaluating and advancing the safety culture throughout higher education and within all academic research laboratories.

A robust and positive laboratory safety culture is critical to maintaining, supporting and advancing the research excellence at Stanford.  The Task Force will solicit information and input regarding laboratory safety culture elements from the various entities and personnel involved in the academic research laboratory environment.  The Task Force is co-chaired by three senior research faculty from the schools of Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, and Medicine, and includes representatives of the various stakeholder constituencies directly involved in laboratory research and safety management at Stanford (graduate students, Post-docs, research associates/assistants, lab managers, faculty/PIs, university safety partners, EH&S, school and university research leaders, among others).

Specifically, the Stanford task force will examine the current status of laboratory safety in academic research at Stanford relative to the referenced characteristics of a strong laboratory safety culture.  It will review the various Stanford laboratory stakeholder entities and operations that provide support for laboratory safety, and meet with and gather information and input from those conducting laboratory research including research faculty, laboratory managers, postdoctoral fellows, research associates and assistants, teaching assistants, and graduate and undergraduate students.    It will compare practices and prevailing attitudes in the laboratory setting with knowledge and standards supporting promotion of a strong safety culture from current literature and best in class organizations and will make recommendations, as appropriate, for systems, practices and activities with the goal of continuing the advancement of a culture of laboratory safety as a core value and essential element in the responsible conduct of research at Stanford University.  

Task Force Charge and Objectives

The overall charge to the Task Force is to prepare a report on the status of safety culture within academic research laboratories at Stanford and provide recommendations for continued advancement of a positive culture of safety within academic research laboratories at Stanford.  

Although there are many diverse aspects involved in organizational safety cultures, the task force’s initial efforts will focus in three specific organizational areas identified as core elements to supporting and advancing safety culture in academic research laboratories: 1) within the frontline research groups conducting work at the bench top; 2) within departments and schools with major academic research laboratory activity; and 3) within the institutional organizations that provide safety support for research activities at Stanford, including leadership and senior administration, Environmental Health and Safety and the University Safety Partners.  

To this end, the task force plan of action is to meet with principals, participant representatives and stakeholders of these three organizational areas to solicit input, information, perspectives on safety culture/safety program status and needs, and to receive suggestions for improvement and advancement of the laboratory safety culture in research at Stanford.  With this organizational area focus, and bearing in mind the characteristics of a strong safety culture listed previously, the following general task force objectives have been identified:

  1. Review and evaluate the existing state/perception of safety climate/safety culture in academic research laboratories at Stanford through solicitation and gathering of information, perspectives on lab safety, and input from the various stakeholders in laboratory research at Stanford. 
  2. Identify best practices of a sound, proactive laboratory safety culture within the three critical functional areas that most closely touch the research laboratory environment:
    1. Within the research laboratory and amongst the research group (PI, Post-docs, grad students)
    2. Within the departmental and schools management systems
    3. Within EH&S programs and support functions
  3. Identify the roles, responsibilities, authorities and accountabilities within and among each of these functional areas
  4. Identify additional program needs, support functions, new tools and/or other issues for advancing laboratory safety culture in each of the areas identified above
  5. Recommend approaches and programs to address the identified needs/gaps

Recognizing the complexity of these tasks and goals, the Task Force recognizes that information gathered in initial stages of the evaluation may well inform directions for subsequent follow up.  Therefore, the goal is to complete the initial stakeholder meetings and gathering of informational input (items 1 and 2 above) within winter quarter and, depending on findings from the initial informational gathering, complete the remainder of goals within spring quarter.  This timeline is subject to many variables, and may need to be revisited as the process and information needs dictate.

Task Force Membership 

Task Force membership consists of representation from a broad spectrum of the laboratory academic leadership and the laboratory research community.  As necessary during the review and information gathering process, smaller work groups, including personnel not part of the main task force, may be formed to focus on specific program or topical reviews on behalf of the task force.   The overall goal is to maintain efficiency while ensuring completeness resulting from thoroughness of stakeholder input and information gathering.

University Committee on Health and Safety

The Stanford University Committee on Health and Safety (UCHS), established in 1988, is a standing faculty-led committee reporting to the President of the University. The University Committee on Health and Safety is charged with advising the President on the adequacy of Stanford’s health and safety programs, policies and organization; recommending needs, priorities and strategies to promote good health, safety and environmental practices on campus; and recommending to the President University-wide policies with respect to health and safety matters.