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Ground Reality: Are Indian labs safe for research?  A complete analysis

Right said by Rob Long “If safety is ‘common sense’ then we need no trainers, training programs, safety officers, inductions or safety legislation”.

A laboratory is such a place, where the new products are manufactured, new inventions are made, and new processes evolve. All the inventions are the outcome of laboratories – the life-saving drugs that keep us alive, to household instruments that save our valuable time and many more are experimented and generated from laboratories.

In a laboratory, hundreds of experiments are performed with different materials, to produce newer materials. During the testing process; a lot of chemicals, gases, instruments, and equipment are used – many of them may have a potential hazardous effect. Sometimes, though the quantity is small, they can create the same level of risk, compared to a manufacturing plant. Unless otherwise, the users have proper knowledge of handling these materials, it may cause severe injuries/loss of properties. Even with a well-trained person, a careless moment in a laboratory could lead to an accident. From chemicals to electrical equipment, laboratories require a wide range of safety guards and it is very crucial to understand the importance of all these safety processes.

A Sneak Peek into Indian Research Labs 

In India after completing higher education, many students opt for pursuing research in their respective field. It is this research work that leads to the information base of a country and various industries can employ these techniques for the advancement of the nation economically as well as for general overall development. Modern India has had a strong focus on science and technology, realizing that it is a crucial element of economic progress.

The Indian success story contains recent highlights of scientific expertise, especially in materials science, nanosciences, and astrophysics, at its many Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). These technology schools have the country’s highest institutional WFC, followed by the government-funded laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER). Apart from groups of institutes, the standalone institute that shines through is the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) with its glorious chemistry and physical sciences departments. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research with its strong fundamental research in particle physics and astrophysics made a mark with its contribution to the CERN experiments leading to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Rounding out the top-ten institutions in India in 2014 are the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Harish-Chandra Research Institute (HRI), University of Hyderabad (UOH) and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP).

Research laboratory safety rules describe the necessary conditions when working in a laboratory. The worker in the laboratory should know the potential hazards of equipment and the chemical materials to be used. Students learn how to assess and control risks in a research laboratory and to pinpoint a possible danger. Training on the hazard classes such as physical, chemical, biological and radiation hazards is given and exercises to each class prepare for exams.

When working in a lab, it is important to be familiar with the types of equipment in working space, even if someone does not need to use it himself. It’s also important to be cautious of what other researchers or coworkers are doing/using around someone. If someone is familiar with the laboratory and always following proper safety procedures where he is working, he can assist to prevent hazards or accidents and can take the proper steps to take in the unfortunate event when something goes wrong. Proper laboratories are designed keeping safety in mind, however, accidents can happen, which is why it’s best to be ready for the emergency condition.

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Examples of common hazards:

  • Chemical hazards: Toxins, corrosives, flammables, and reactive
  • Biological hazards: Animals, plants, microbes, and genetically modified agents
  • Radiation hazards: Ionizing and nonionizing radiation
  • Physical hazards: Heating devices, noise, fire, cold etc.
  • Electrical hazards: Fire and shock
  • Mechanical hazards: Moving machinery
  • Airborne hazardous materials: Vapors, dust, etc.
  • Ergonomic factors: Standing, repetitive motion

Safety and health in clinical laboratories are also becoming an increasingly important subject as a result of disclosure of highly infectious diseases such as Hepatitis and HIV. A cross-sectional study was performed to study the safety steps being adopted in clinical laboratories of India. Heads of laboratories of teaching hospitals of India were subjected to a standardized, pretested questionnaire. Installing safety-engineered devices apparently contributes to a significant decrease in injuries in laboratories; laboratory safety has to be a part of an overall quality assurance program in hospitals. Consignment has to be taken as a necessary step for all laboratories.

Developing a culture of safety requires a sustained commitment to high standards at all levels—from top institutional heads to laboratory personnel. As growing countries establish safety and security programs, it is important for them to reflect on the entire life cycle of chemicals -starting from planning, procurement, use and finally the disposal. There should be a proper structure to systematically combine safety and security into a research laboratory to put a stop to situations that might result in injury, disease, fatal accident, adverse environmental effects etc. The way the individual elements of the structure are applied will depend on the size of the institution, the nature of its activities, and the hazards and conditions particular to its operations.

Each individual in an institution has various roles and responsibilities for building and maintaining safe and secure habits.

Leaders

Responsibility for safety and security rests ultimately with the head of the institution and its controlling units. In some cases, there may be legal steps and large personal fines or prison sentences if they do not provide a secure and safe research environment. Leadership by those in charge ensures that an effective safety and security program is taken by all; even a well-constructed program will be treated casually by workers if top management fails to look after it.

Safety Officers

To maintain and support a combined effort for safety management and to provide counseling to people at all levels, each institution should have at least one designated safety officer. The safety officer should be prepared with the knowledge, responsibility, and authority to implement an effective safety and security management protocol.

Environmental Health and Safety Office

There are some big institutions, where environmental health and safety office full of experts in chemical safety, clinical hygiene, fire management, toxicology, and other fields are present. Such an office aid in supervising rules and developing laboratory safety standards, and often handles harmful waste issues, investigation of accident and audits, training, record keeping, and response in an emergency.

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Chemical Laboratory Managers and Instructors

In coursework, laboratory instructors bear direct responsibility for actions taken by students. Instructors are responsible for maintaining a tradition of safety and for teaching the skills that students and other workers require when they are working in a laboratory.

Students/Workers

Students and other laboratory workers who are involved in the work are responsible most for working safely though there are influence and dependence on the guidance and rules made by those who are in leadership and management positions.

The most crucial point of establishing a strong safety and security program is the commitment of the top leaders in the institution to preserve it. If the leaders support the establishment of this program and hold their managers responsible and accountable, a culture of compliance can be achieved.

Though there are several institutes where students are provided with a proper safe environment for research but most of the laboratories in India are still lacking it. It’s true that India is a country where there is no paucity of praise-worthy and hard-working students, but India has an inadequacy of ideal and safe laboratory that these students deserve for their upcoming bright future.

The following steps are mandatory for constructing an ideal lab:

  • The top institutional leader should establish a committee to provide oversight for chemical safety and security. The committee should report directly to the top leaders and receive the required financial and administrative support. The institution should also define CSO (chief security officer) responsibilities and authority and appoint at least one CSO.
  • For a CSO to be effective, he will need to be given dedicated time, resources, and the necessary authority to carry out his responsibilities. CSOs should have direct access, when necessary, to the senior authorities who are ultimately responsible to the general public.
  • Institutional leaders should implement a formal policy to define, document, and endorse the program. The policy should state how the institution will prevent or diminish human and economic losses arising from accidents, and environmental events; build safety and security considerations into all phases of operations; achieve and maintain compliance with laws and regulations; and improve performance continuously.
  • The policy statement should be communicated and made readily available to all employees and should be reviewed and revised by top management on a regular basis.
  • Management should also communicate a commitment to safety and security to all laboratory workers regularly.
  • Implementation of administrative controls and processes for performance measurement: Administrative controls are an institution’s specific rules and procedures for safe and secure practices, and they establish the responsibilities of the personnel involved.
  • CSOs should make general safety rules, laboratory housekeeping procedures, manuals for use of materials and instruments/equipment and to communicate these rules and responsibilities to all laboratory staff. These documents should clearly define the individual responsibilities of students and other laboratory workers, laboratory managers, institutional leaders, contractors, emergency service providers, and visitors to the laboratory.
  • The business of conducting experiments changes continually: attrition in staff members and students, changes in regulations, and evolution of technologies. As a result, evaluating the safety and security aspects of chemistry laboratory operations should be part of everyday activities, in addition to and separate from regular formal performance measurements and reviews.
  • In addition to performance measurements by those working in the laboratory, periodic analysis by knowledgeable people independent of the location or activity should be arranged to enable a deeper and more critical appraisal. Top management should review the formal policy regularly.
  • Effective management of chemicals: Laboratory management should establish a list of all the chemicals in the laboratory, especially the chemicals of concern (COCs). COCs are highly hazardous chemicals or chemicals that are potential precursors of highly.
  • Evaluate facilities and address weaknesses: The role of physical access control in improving the security of chemicals, equipment, and occupants of buildings in which chemicals are stored and used should be addressed specifically. This will require the development of a comprehensive security vulnerability assessment and policy.
  • An important part of any process is accountability for chemical use and adherence to procedures. Managers should recognize and reward those who go after the best practices while handling and working with chemicals.
  • Use of personal protective equipment and engineering controls: Engineering measures, such as a laboratory hood, local exhaust ventilation, and a glove box are the primary ways to control hazards in the chemical laboratory. Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety glasses, goggles, and face shields are used in addition to engineering controls. Laboratory management should not allow an experiment to proceed if inadequate hazard control measures (engineering or PPE) are unavailable.
  • Emergency: Laboratories, like all other workplaces, may experience unintentional incidents and emergencies. There should be proper steps to handle emergencies and provision of equipment and supplies, such as fire extinguishers, eyewashes, safety showers etc.
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For research scholars, it is necessary to understand the potential dangers in a laboratory and how to handle them. It’s learned through experience from their own as well as from the others. Some laboratories in India sustains a comprehensive safety program. These programs have devised procedures and protocols to diminish the risks generating from handling, use, storage and disposal of chemicals. For example, in NCL (National Chemical Laboratory), besides a statutory Safety Committee chaired by the Director, CSIR-NCL has nine Divisional Safety Committees to handle safety-related issues at a division level. There should be regular inspections of the laboratories and storage areas. The inspection checklist should comprise of the items such as laboratory housekeeping, personal protection, chemical storage, gas cylinder storage, electrical and mechanical equipment, emergency safety equipment, first-aid box etc. Safety awareness should be included as a part of the research coursework in every institution/universities. If institution/universities can provide a safe environment in the laboratory for the research scholars, then India will not loss meritorious and diligent buds from her.

About the Author
This article was compiled by Dr. Tuluma Das who is associated with Biotecnika. A PostDoc with an educational background in chemistry, she is an ardent reader & writer. Loves to impart knowledge to students. Being from a research background she is well aware of the Indian research Lab scenario. This article was an attempt by her to spread awareness about the same so that our research labs are safer to work.

Reference: For the above article reference was taken from nature index, The National Academies Press

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