The celebrated 19th-century German chemist Justus von Liebig famously advised his protegé Augustus Kekulé that it was necessary to ruin one’s health in order to succeed in chemistry. Liebig could have merely been telling his student that overwork, poor eating habits, and a lack of sleep come with the job, but this advice could also suggest that the inherent risks and potential physical injuries of laboratory work are an essential part of scientific discovery.

That notion might sit well with some chemists, but not John Trant. People in his lab in the University of Windsor’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry must be properly outfitted and equipped with safety gear to conduct even the most benign reactions. Nor is he above sending a student home for the rest of the day when he catches them not taking such precautions. He offers a standard response to anyone who complains about the need for these steps when nothing bad has ever happened: “Nothing bad has happened — until it does.”

Not surprisingly, when Trant joined the university as an assistant professor and became co-chair of his department’s safety committee, his goals included efforts to enhance the safety culture for both students and faculty members.

“I’m a scientist, so I said let’s find some data and build an empirically supported training system,” he recalls. “But when you go looking, there’s nothing. There’s just nothing.”

Trant reiterates that his search for statistics and background information about safety in Canadian university chemistry labs did not simply turn up a disappointingly small and limited pool of data, but essentially no useful data at all. Nor did he find any details to support the safety recommendations of organizations such as the American Chemical Society.

“For the most part, everything is a reaction to anecdotes,” he observes. “Something happens and we react to it as a community. We institute a policy specific to what happened.”

Trant discussed this matter with his spouse, Dana Ménard, who works as a psychologist with the university’s Student Counselling Centre. Her own observation is that scientists are inclined to view safety much as they would any other physical phenomenon, without necessarily considering the more subtle human elements that played a role in the outcome, such as perceptions of risk. She acknowledges that safety assessment can be approached in this way, as straightforward data collection exercise, but doing so does not necessarily reveal patterns or causes related to the actions of the participants. A survey of individuals’ experiences and attitudes would begin to show the other factors that contributed to any particular event — a strategy demanding social science methodology that would be foreign to most chemists.

“Safety is a concept that’s naturally fallen between the disciplines,” explains Ménard. “None of this lies outside of the realm of what social science can bring to the table. It’s just that social science has never really been asked to come to the table.”

Nor does that oversight surprise Trant. “Part of that might be the natural scientists’ bias towards the supremacy of our own research approach,” he adds, “which translates into an attitude that there’s nothing these psychologists could teach us.”

Trant and Ménard subsequently committed themselves to addressing this absence of information. They set the stage for a multi-year research program by drafting a paper that outlines the need for this kind of comprehensive, multidisciplinary study. Published in Nature Chemistry at the end of 2019, they considered the example of a UCLA student who died in a 2008 laboratory accident that drew a great deal of attention to safety but ultimately resulted in no practical change at all to policies or procedures that could prevent the same kind of tragedy from happening again.

Trant contrasts such inaction with the specific, concrete measures that have been put in place to deal with similarly thorny matters such as the use of research animals or sexual harassment. Granting agencies have imposed stiff penalties in response to various forms of misconduct, none of which apply to safety.

“As far as we could see, nobody has had their eligibility for grants restricted because of a safety record,” he says. “What this is saying to me is that as a community we’ve decided that lying about data in a grant or article is a worse crime than being negligent with the lives of others.”

Ménard contrasts the situation in campus laboratories with those in industry, where safety is rigidly enforced and documented.

“One of the things that people have hypothesized is that industry has a much more obvious hierarchy of responding,” she says. “The worker reports to the manager, the manager reports to a secondary manager, that manager reports to the VP, who reports to the president.”

Universities, she adds, tend to be much more level organizations, with far less clearly defined lines of accountability and authority. Students may report an accident or a near-accident to a staff or faculty member, but these individuals have much broader discretion as to whether they pass that information on to other parts of the university administration.

In this way, it becomes possible for significant events occurring in university laboratories to remain undocumented and unknown beyond a very limited circle, especially if there were no injuries or physical damage. According to Trant, it then becomes all too easy to chalk up any problem to an individual’s error, rather than investigating whether there was a more systemic cause that should be considered. Even more worrying for Trant is the lack of provincial regulations that would protect the interests of some lab personnel such as research associates, whose status within the university are not always strictly defined in legal terms.

In their paper, he and Ménard suggest that an academic setting offers so much freedom of action to its members that researchers’ individual attitudes toward safety wind up playing a major part in how safe their workspaces will be. Moreover, those attitudes will be passed along to students whose education and training take place in that same setting, whether it is one that subscribes to diligent safety protocols or adopts a fast-paced, freewheeling style.

“It’s hard to overcome your formative experiences,” says Trant, “and everyone’s formative experiences are in academic labs.”