Why Academic Laboratories are the most dangerous

lab pictureFor me it’s difficult to speak about this argument  without being emotionally involved. I would like to be objective, to analize the problem from the roots to the leaves. I could cite many examples where academy failed to preserve health and life of its researchers, but the net is full of these news. Tragedies… Accidents… Unfortunate Events.. Nobody could have done something… No resposibles… Always the same, from Europe to US, from Japan to India, Academy looks to be the place to work with the most dangerous substances with the lowest level of precautions. I’ll cite only one emblematic case which particularly impressed me. The death for cancer of 15 researchers at the University of Catania (Italy), supposedly because they were working with harmful substances without the necessary ventilation system ad a series of other basic precautions. An interesting film was inspired by this tragedy, “Col fiato sospeso” “With bated breath“,  here the link to watch the trailer (it’s in italian): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjPq6K81q2g

I worked directly or indirectly in 6 different academic laboratories of 4 european countries (Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France) and I could notice in each of them the same lack of  respect for safety rules, the same indifference and carelessness of the “responsibles“, and the same unpreparedness of the students. At the beginning of my studies I was thinking that the lack of safety was directly related to the amount of money spent in research, so in “richest” countries I was expecting a major attention for this problem… but I was wrong, it was just different the approach.

In what are considered more “social countries” like Italy and France (social as political term), health and safety rules are strictly regulated by a very strong legislation… which nobody really respect! The important is to fullfill any bureaucratic paper to demonstrate in case of “accident” that nobody was responsible for that. After all, it’s easy to cheat controls when you know that they are coming, you just close all the solvents and reagents in cupboards, stop to work for one day, and they will not detect anything. In Switzerland, the money are directly managed by  professors, that focusing only on their  career, will buy amazing instruments and hire many post-docs and PhD students, but they will not care at all if their fumehoods don’t work properly, if laboratories are not well ventilated. I saw only one professor standing to have renovated his labs. Moreover, while during my PhD in Italy I was used to be yearly visited by a doctor and to have blood analysis, in Switzerland they were looking me like an alien… Are you kidding? With the cost of health insurance??? While money for the most fancy gadgets in science were always available.

Why Academy fails so badly in health & safety protocols? It might be for 2 main reasons:

A first, pragmatic one.  In companies generally research is oriented towards well defined goals and they use often the same substances and methods, establishing consistent safety protocols. In academy, research topics can change more often, but safety protocols are not adapted each time. Moreover while a safety control in industries could stop research and production for months with a huge economical loss, would someone really care if an academic laboratory gets the same restriction?

The second, more dramatic in my opinion, is related to the precarious nature of academic job contracts. PhD students and Post-Docs, which are the more exposed to all the risks, don’t have any contractual power or protection. Confined in a “Limbo” between the status of students and workers they know that they will be finished in 3 or 4 years, therefore they just hold on, and they don’t fight for their rights and they are not represented by any labor union.

Also in this case, differences between countries are only superficial but the result is again the same. For example, if in Italy you would report a safety misconduct (like it happened in the case of University of Catania) you would fight a bureaucratic  windmill. Your professor is your supervisor but not your boss, your boss is the University, epitomized by a commision, which it means everybody and nobody. In Switzerland your professor is “basically” your employer and He/She can promote or ruin your career, decide if you will get your PhD or not, therefore you just shut up and hold on.

Don’t take me wrong,  I am not simplifying everything. Professors are part of a wrong system too (even though they could be in the position of changing something). They are academic, they don’t have any formation in management, in safety control, in human resources. They perpetuate a system which worked for them, so why change it?

Acamedy needs a big reflection, needs to discuss and change. Any Ideas?


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