Today at Berkeley Lab

Thinking Ahead about Safety

Serious accidents are very rare at Berkeley Lab, but a good record poses a problem of its own. To continue rooting out potential hazards before they become real ones, you have to dig deeper to find them. Thinking ahead, or proactive management, is the simple yet solid cornerstone for building what Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos calls a safety culture throughout the institution.

For example, researchers in Gary Karpen’s Life Sciences Division laboratory at Potter Street routinely wear gloves, mainly to protect samples from contamination, says David Acevedo, senior research associate in the Karpen laboratory. However, several workers were observed opening doors to shared spaces while still wearing their lab gloves. This raised a concern about contamination on the doors, commonly used by many other employees and visitors in the building. “If you touch the doors, you assume they’re clean, but if you see people wearing gloves you end up with a culture where you wear gloves to touch everything,” says Acevedo.

“There was no signage (in the Karpen lab),” says Acevedo. On a visit to a laboratory at UC Berkeley, Acevedo noticed signs and stickers warning lab workers to remove gloves before touching surfaces such as doors and elevator buttons. He took his concern to Andrew Peterson, Division Safety Coordinator for Life Sciences, and asked that signage similar to UC’s be posted at the Potter Street Laboratory and in some buildings on the Hill for Life Sciences.

The warning signs were installed, and the success rate of the new signs is high. “Once we put them on there, the instances of people opening shared doors while wearing lab gloves pretty much dropped to zero,” says Acevedo. “People were aware, saw the signs, and took off the gloves. … This is good for any area where you work with potentially hazardous substances,” he adds.

Safety specialists stress that discovery of a problem in one part of the Lab can indicate a more systemic issue that needs to be addressed lab-wide. Early reporting not only can prevent injuries, it avoids disruption of research and the associated expenses.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility at Berkeley Lab, and employees are empowered, encouraged, and, in fact, expected to report safety concerns without fear of retribution. It is a page borrowed from the policy manual of the today’s airline industry. “In aviation, every team member is encouraged to report anything, even minor, that didn’t happen the way they expected it would as well as processes and circumstances that could possibly lead to an unsafe situation. They are never penalized for speaking up. As a consequence, fatal accidents in the airline industry are extremely rare, and that is an approach we need to foster here. We’re proud that many Lab staff have already adopted this safety habit, and we strongly encourage everyone to regard this as an integral aspect of their daily activities at Berkeley Lab,” Alivisatos notes.