Editorial | Published:

Serious questions

Nature volume 486, page 294 (21 June 2012) | Download Citation

Nature Publishing Group's reader survey on lab-safety practices needs your input.

Scientific laboratories are dangerous places. Noxious chemicals, naked flames and nasty microbes abound. The white laboratory coat, a long-standing symbol of science to many outsiders,offers some protection against these implicit threats. White coats are ubiquitous in fictional labs in films and on television, but how many lab scientists actually wear one? And, perhaps more importantly, how many should do, but don't? Are you wearing one right now? Are your colleagues? Does it matter? Would you tell anybody if it did? And, if not a lab coat, what about those protective goggles? They get so hot in summer, don't they? Is it really that big a deal if you leave them on the hook just this once?

It is easy for scientists, especially those who have been around for a while and so tend to be in charge, to take a cavalier attitude to safety, purely because science is so much safer now than it was when they began. And although it is true that laboratories and lab culture have improved since the reckless days of the 1950s and 1960s, accidents still happen. Sometimes, these accidents are fatal. Laboratories do still kill people.

“It is easy for scientists to take a cavalier attitude to safety.”

In an Editorial on the subject last April (Nature 472, 259; 2011), prompted by the death of physics and astronomy undergraduate student Michele Dufault in a workshop at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, this publication warned against complacency when it comes to lab safety. A common complaint among environmental health and safety officers in universities and elsewhere, we noted, is that “there is no good source of consistent data on laboratory accidents, which could be studied to determine effective safety interventions”. That the working environment for scientists is safer now than in times past is less important than whether it is as safe now as it could, or should, be — and there is at present no way to say for sure that it is.

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) has now joined with the University of California, Los Angeles, and the software firm BioRAFT to try to fill in some of the blanks. (BioRAFT, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has investment from Digital Science, owned by NPG's parent company, Macmillan.) Together, the three have launched an online survey of international laboratory safety and working culture. Some readers will already have received invitations to participate, but everyone else is welcome, too: the survey can be found at http://go.nature.com/7ldjli. It should take about 15 minutes to complete and is anonymous — although there is an option to leave an e-mail address for follow-up questions. The organizers hope that tens of thousands of working scientists will respond to questions about the environments they work in and the attitudes that they and their colleagues have to health and safety regulations. The survey also addresses research practice, including how many people regularly work alone in a lab, and how often; training provision; and whether scientists feel able to raise concerns about safety. Please take the survey. Someone, some day, will benefit.

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