Friday, August 12, 2011

Researcher Welfare

There is an editorial in Nature (issue 7343) about the death of an undergraduate student working late, alone, in a laboratory. The author comments on the need for better data about lab accidents and better safety precautions.

Of course, Nature has always had a rather strong "micro" focus where the only research environment seriously consider is the bench laboratory. I hope that any initiatives that develop will recognize that students and researchers in all environments frequently put themselves at risk during their everyday activities..

Working in a pig barn I found myself inhaling fine dust that was coughed up for days afterwards in a phenomenon the technicians blithely refer to as 'pig lung'. On the weekends personnel often work alone as the muck out, feed, and carry out any other necessarily activities like giving an unappreciative pig an antibiotic injection (which, based on their reaction, is not a pleasant experience). Even on busy days a research farm is large enough that you  could be trampled by a pig and pretty much eaten alive before anyone noticed.

In over a decade of research I encountered a safety officer only once. This individual walked passed hand-built (slightly smoking) equipment powered by a rank of car batteries, piles of equipment infested with mice, and a loose wall panel from which the wiggly tails of maggots peeked, to repremand a student for standing on a sow stall wall to adjust a camera. Quite why a free standing ladder with legs small enough to slip through the slats was considered a safer perch than than a steel structure bolted to the floor, well, I don't know.

Research is hazardous partly because each research project is unique and has idiosyncratic hazards. And there is strong pressure for those that carry out the hands on work to 'make do' with whatever resource are available.

We are all now quite accustomed to carefully considering the welfare of our animals as we design our experimental programs--perhaps it is time to take the welfare of our students, technicians and researchers just as seriously?

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