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New measures to make Berkeley labs, workshops safer

By Cathy Cockrell

three lab researchers
When working with hazardous materials at a lab bench, researchers must wear, at minimum, a lab coat, safety gloves and safety eyewear. (Hulda Nelson photo)

To improve safety for campus researchers and others, the University of California has introduced a trio of new policies for all UC campuses and facilities. One, on personal protective equipment, takes effect March 31, 2014.  The two others – one on lab-safety training, the other concerning minors in laboratories and shops – became effective Oct. 31, 2013.

What do these new systemwide policies mean for the Berkeley campus? Mark Freiberg, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, discusses the policies and how EH&S plans to implement them.

How did these new UC safety policies come about?
Mark Freiberg

EH&S Director Mark Freiberg (Alan DeHerrera photo)

Mark Freiberg: Last summer the UC regents entered into a settlement with the L.A. district attorney, resulting from a fatal laboratory accident at UCLA a few years ago. While the settlement details safety measures that UC needs to institute in departments of chemistry and biochemistry systemwide, the UC Office of the President developed these policies to ensure a similar level of lab safety was practiced in all departments where there are chemical and physical hazards.

Basically, these policies are blueprints to help us more effectively implement what’s required by workplace safety regulations. UC has put careful thought – and considerable input from researchers and other stakeholders — into crafting policies that address the legal requirements in a manner that is effective in the university environment.

How many individuals will be affected by the policies?

We estimate that the personal protective equipment (PPE) and lab-training policies affect perhaps 10,000 people at Berkeley, including many who work in visual- and performing-art studios, machine workshops and other workshops.

That’s a lot of folks to account for. How will EH&S keep track of who’s taken the required safety training and what protective equipment they each need to wear?

We have just launched an online lab-roster tracking tool to help with the record keeping. Lab staff update their rosters online, listing everyone working in the lab — staff, postdocs, grad students, undergrads, volunteers, visiting scholars — regardless of affiliation with the university. Everyone working in a lab must take a two-hour online training on lab-safety fundamentals, created by a systemwide work group with faculty input. Using the lab-roster tool, principal investigators now have an easy way to determine whether their lab is in compliance. The feedback that we’ve received indicates the tool is pretty slick; it works.

We intend to include other EH&S trainings — for instance our radiation-safety training and our biosafety training — so that this tool ultimately serves as a one-stop training-compliance record for each lab on campus.

What personal protective equipment is required?

Anyone entering a campus research lab in which hazardous materials are used must wear long pants (or equivalent) and closed-toed shoes, with no skin exposed between the shoe and pant cuff. When working with hazardous materials at the bench, the minimum requirement is a lab coat, ANSI-rated safety eyewear and gloves.

The specific type of lab coat, eyewear and other PPE required depends on the materials you’re handling. For some research, standard lab coats and safety eyewear are sufficient; in other cases, flame-retardant lab coats and safety goggles are required. Knowing what each individual researcher is required to wear, with the help of a new UC online lab-hazard assessment tool, will facilitate distribution of the proper protective gear.

How will distribution occur?

All lab researchers on campus will receive, free of charge, at least two lab coats and a pair of safety eyewear; this will happen at a weeklong distribution event at Memorial Stadium in late February 2014.  They’ll be fitted for lab coats and eyewear, and enrolled in a laundry service for the coats, which UC is providing free of charge. After the distribution event, EH&S will continue providing certain PPE to campus labs.

three lab researchers

When working with hazardous materials at a lab bench, researchers must wear, at minimum, a lab coat, safety gloves and safety eyewear. (Hulda Nelson photo)

If a lab fails to comply with the policies, what are the consequences?

Non-compliance with the settlement, which affects only Department of Chemistry personnel, can result in a fine to the department of up to $500,000 per non-compliance event directly related to the stipulations in the settlement. For all other labs on campus, non-compliance could result in a Cal-OSHA citation. Perhaps most importantly, a record of safety compliance reduces the risk of an injury in the lab; if an accident does occur, the research group’s safety record may be scrutinized by outside entities. To help prevent such lab accidents, EH&S works collaboratively with researchers to address issues of noncompliance and get any deficiencies fixed in a timely manner.

Could a lab be shut down?

Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming has continually expressed a strong interest in laboratory safety, and he recently directed the development of a newly-issued campus policy on “enforcement of safety standards in academic environments.” This new campus policy clarifies the actions to be taken when lab-safety deficiencies are not addressed in a timely manner. With serious deficiencies, this can include a “stop work” order, but with the enhanced safety culture we’re seeing in campus labs, we don’t anticipate needing to implement this step very often at all.  Researchers are showing they care about their own safety and that of their colleagues.

All this implies being able to monitor what’s happening in the labs.

Faculty are familiar with an annual, pre-planned visit from EH&S’s inspector; going forward we’re going to have additional inspectors. Each lab will be visited twice each year, with two in-person follow-ups to ensure that any issues identified have been corrected. That way, our lab inspectors will have a chance to really get to know the lab researchers, and develop a good relationship. It’s going to be consultative and collaborative, but will really emphasize the safety message.

These UC policies support safety in the workplace, but they also involve more work for EH&S. What’s your take on the new policies?

We’re very excited to be able to provide additional resources and guidance to University personnel working with chemicals. Until recently, regulatory enforcement and many UC safety resources were largely focused on more exotic hazards, such as radiation. We feel that going forward we’ll have much safer labs for all personnel doing research on campus.

See the Environment, Health and Safety website for links to the Campus Lab Safety Manual and related information. The new UC policies may be found here .