Roles and Responsibilities  

Overview

Safety in the research laboratory is the responsibility of all stakeholders involved in research activities throughout the institution (e.g., administrators, researchers, etc.). Everyone associated with the research laboratory should know and be committed to their respective roles and obligations. Here, we focus on the roles of the administration, principal investigators, researchers and lab workers, and support personnel.


Institutional and Departmental Administration

The administration's primary role is to ensure that:

  • Tools for conducting hazard identification and evaluation are available to researchers throughout the institution.
  • Hazard identification and analysis becomes an expected and routine part of any experiment, research plan, and general performance.
  • Researchers are provided the training and critical support needed to execute the analysis and mitigation process.
  • Workers (regardless of rank) are empowered to question whether an analysis is complete enough or whether sufficient mitigating controls have been put in place.

Administrators also determine the level of acceptable risk, including consequences that are not acceptable (e.g., injuries, death, property loss). Assessment of the processes and procedures is vital throughout the organization, with the goal of continual improvement. At the departmental level, there should be established expectations for who can authorize a research project, experiment, or task and under what conditions reauthorization needs to take place.


Principal Investigator (PI)

Many organizations define a PI as being responsible for managing sponsored research projects. Here, we define additional responsibilities of managing laboratories as relates to hazard assessment in the research lab.

The PI's role is paramount in developing successful strategies for the analysis and mitigation of hazards in individual research laboratories. The PI is most able to provide guidance concerning what constitutes a hazard in the performance of an experiment or research plan. Ideally, the hazard analysis will complement the development of written research procedures or protocols for the operations that will be performed. Among other responsibilities related to safety, the PI should:

  • Promote a laboratory culture where safety is a valued component of research;
  • Analyze proposed work tasks to identify hazards and determine the appropriate controls (engineering, administrative, and PPE) needed to sufficiently mitigate the hazards;
  • Seek ways to make hazard analysis an integrated part of the research process, so that it becomes a natural part of the process;
  • Include the researchers who will be performing the work in the hazard analysis process;
  • Ensure the hazards and controls are clearly communicated and understood by those performing the task;
  • Set the expectation that participation in the research project is contingent on an individual contributor’s willingness to abide by the controls established through the hazard analysis process;
  • Reach out to support personnel and subject matter experts for assistance, as needed, and defer to their expertise regardless of their position on the research team or within the organization (e.g., junior staff members or safety professionals);
  • Meet with research staff on a regular basis and lead by example;
  • Engage in the daily operations of the laboratory and be available, as needed, to ensure workers are performing in accordance with the agreed upon controls;
  • Use lessons learned from abnormal events inside and outside the research group to improve planning;
  • Solicit feedback from coworkers and colleagues to improve safety and the process;
  • Address risks faced by visitors, including maintenance staff, during the hazard analysis process;
  • Manage change control carefully by routinely reviewing procedures and the hazard analysis to identify changes; and
  • Ensure training is appropriate, effective, and documented.

A responsible research member, such as a co-PI or laboratory manager, may assist with the performance of the daily laboratory operations and oversee some of the chemical hygiene duties. The PI should be very selective in the assignment of this person (or persons) and ensure they have the qualifications required to assume this role. Expectations must be clearly articulated and directed. Delegation of chemical hygiene responsibilities to other staff or faculty members should not be viewed as diminishing the responsibility or accountability of the PI.

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Researcher and Laboratory Worker

Researchers and lab workers in the laboratory are on the frontline of safety. As such, they must participate most fully in the hazard analysis and mitigation process. Researchers must:

  • Have a right and a responsibility to ask challenging and clarifying questions to ensure the scope of work and all hazards and controls are well understood before beginning an experiment or research protocol.
  • Have a clear understanding of needed safety measures
  • Feel comfortable in performing the upcoming experiment using identified measures to minimize risks.
  • Be committed to performing their research in a manner that has been determined in the analysis.
  • Communicate changing or unexpected scope of work and conditions, so the hazard analysis can be modified, if needed.

Support Personnel

Support personnel (e.g., safety or chemical hygiene officers, industrial hygienists, field surveyors, inspectors) provide quality control and assurance and are essential partners in the development of a culture of safety in universities and research institutions. Support personnel should actively participate in the hazard analysis process, as needed. Their expertise is especially valuable for:

  • Ensuring research staff is up-to-date on regulatory requirements and controls;
  • Checking and confirming the protocols or controls, which are developed as a result of the hazard analysis;
  • Continuing education;
  • Development and communication of new methodologies for hazard analysis and mitigation, both within the local EHS community and the community of researchers.

This collection of methods and tools for assessing hazards in research laboratories is based on the publication, Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories. The guide was published in 2015 by the Hazard Identification and Evaluation Task Force of the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Chemical Safety in response to a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.