NSights Blog

It’s everyone’s responsibility

A culture of safety must remain integral to all we do, in all University settings, and is an especially critical component of scholarly excellence and responsible conduct of research.

"Strengthening and supporting a culture of safety is as important to our discovery enterprise as is peer review, publication, grant writing, mentoring and educating; it is integral to the conduct of research."

This statement is from - and captures the essence of - the national report of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities' Research Task Force on Laboratory Safety. The 2016 report challenged America's universities to strengthen our commitment to safety in our research and academic settings, and it provided a roadmap of recommendations by which universities can achieve, promote and sustain safety.

The administrative structure in place at the University of Nevada, Reno aligns with the recommendations of the Task Force. Notably, our Environmental Health & Safety group is part of Research & Innovation, and therefore represents a unified, administrative reporting model as recommended. The University's Laboratory Safety Committee provides an important mechanism for faculty involvement and input, and this, too, is also strongly advised.

A true culture of safety is not simply about compliance or enforcement; rather, it is about a collegial, respectful campus community where we learn, listen, speak up and help one another be safe. It must be a culture of learning and continuous improvement. It's also about personal responsibility: If I believe it is unsafe for my 10-year-old child or grandchild to be in my laboratory, then I know it is unsafe for somebody else's 18 year old as well.

The University's recently opened Safety Training for Academic Research Laboratory or STAR Laboratory is a wonderful example of a culture of learning and continuous improvement. Created by the Environmental Health & Safety team, with the support of Facility Services and many others, the laboratory provides a dedicated space for hands-on training. Class participants directly interact with Environmental Health & Safety team members and this, we hope, will result in greater trust and more on-going dialog about safety.

I concur with Dr. Stephanie Woolf, director of Environmental Health & Safety, on the thinking behind the new lab: We want the institution's greatest resources - the faculty, staff and students - to be involved in their own safety. The overall goal is to work together to improve the safety culture of the institution, as a whole. In doing so, as the APLU report reminds us, we instill this culture in the next generation of researchers and faculty and support our students' career development.

This kind of commitment and innovation leaves me confident that when it comes to safety we are on the right track.  However, we can never let our guard down and we can never be complacent when it comes to safety of our faculty, staff, students and guests.  We have to continually identify and minimize risks in our research and instructional laboratories, workshops and maker-spaces, farm and food processing plant(s), classrooms, residence halls, performance and athletic venues, and everywhere else on campus.

With the full support of University President Marc Johnson and Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Carman, I join with you to continue improving an already sound safety culture and program. Together, we build on an effective foundation of resources and people who care.

Mridul Gautam is vice president for research and innovation at the University of Nevada, Reno, served on the 13-member Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities' Research Task Force on Laboratory Safety and serves on the APLU's Council on Research Executive Committee. To report safety incidents, near-misses and concerns at the University, visit unr.edu/ehs/incident-reporting

Mridul Gautam