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Safety compliance as a route to better safety culture

Members of the NAS committee tour labs at UC Berkeley

Members of the NAS academic safety culture committee tour labs at UC Berkeley

One of the things that came up at the National Academy of Science’s “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” committee meeting a couple of weeks ago was the idea that safety compliance leads to a better safety culture.

Many safety professionals say that a culture of compliance is definitely not the best safety culture. Compliance is about box-ticking on things like standardized training and lab inspections. A good safety culture means that people are thinking through, talking about, and paying attention to what they’re doing so they’re actually working safer. Compliance will come from a good safety culture, but a good safety culture will not necessarily arise from compliance.

Others argue, however, that safety culture can be improved through compliance. “It’s worked well for us to develop our safety culture through ensuring compliance,” because the compliance component promoted interactions between researchers and safety professionals, said Robert Eaton, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California, San Francisco.

That only works if those interactions on compliance are positive, I suspect. In an organization in which researchers do not respect or understand the role of safety staff, then compliance is unlikely to do much for the overall safety culture.

But perhaps compliance is an essential step en route to a better safety culture? Maybe organizations need some sort of base-level safety compliance to be able to move people to the next level–maybe people can’t be brought to think critically about what they’re doing when they’re not even bothering with the basics of eye protection and closed-toe shoes. Representatives from Sandia and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories presented what they’re doing to push their organizations beyond what sounded like more of a compliance culture to more of a critical thinking culture. To the academics in the room, “You’re at a state we were at 20 years ago,” said J. Charles Barbour, director of the Physical, Chemical, & Nano Sciences Center at Sandia. Even if compliance culture is a necessary phase, though, perhaps academia can take advantage of the knowledge in industry and government labs to move people faster to critical thinking and safer work practices.

One more meeting tidbit: Stanford University chemistry professor Robert Waymouth‘s suggestion for how to get recalcitrant faculty on board with lab safety programs was to appeal to their egos–in his words, their “desire for excellence”–with the explicit goal of being better than and informing industry rather than the other way around. (Along with, I hope, a desire not to have their lab members get hurt.)

A final note: At the start of the open session, committee chair Holden Thorp noted that topics discussed during information-gathering do not necessarily indicate what will wind up in the final report.