Lab Safety Standards – Behind the Times?

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The law, in general, changes very slowly. OHS laws are a good example. As new technology is developed, new chemicals and tools used, new products manufactured, etc., new hazards are introduced into the workplace. And governments are usually slow to react. Thus, the requirements in the OHS laws don’t keep pace with the reality of modern workplaces.

Yes, the “general duty” clause is a stop-gap that requires employers to protect workers from all workplace hazards—even those not explicitly addressed in the OHS laws. But many hazards needs specific safety measures that are spelled out in the law and not left to employers to develop on their own.  

Biotechnology Labs in the US

Few workplaces have undergone such radical change as biotechnology labs. But as this industry has grown and expanded, US safety standards to protect lab workers have fallen behind and are no longer adequate to protect these workers from all the hazards to which they’re exposed on a daily basis.

According to a recent New York Times article, some critics say the modern biolab often has fewer safety regulations than a typical blue-collar factory. And this lack can have serious and often tragic consequences.

Examples of recent biotech lab injuries, illnesses and fatalities:

  • An Agriculture Department scientist spent a month in a coma after being infected by the E. coli bacteria her colleagues were experimenting with
  • Another scientist working in a New Zealand lab lost both legs and an arm after being infected by meningococcal bacteria, the subject of her vaccine research
  • A University of Chicago scientist died after apparently being infected by the focus of his research: the bacterium that causes plague.

NS Lab Worker Dies

Canadian lab workers are just as vulnerable as those in the US. For example, the drug company Sepracor Canada Ltd. is currently facing OHS charges in Nova Scotia for the death of Roland Daigle, who died after he was allegedly exposed to vapours from trimethylsilyl diazomethane while doing a test at his work station in the company’s plant.

Sepracor is charged with failing to ensure adequate personal protection equipment was in place in Daigle’s work area, an adequate venting system was in place and that he was instructed in the safe use of the chemical. The company’s also charged with failing to instruct a worker in procedures for the safe handling of the substance in the lab and failing to ensure that no one would disturb the scene of an incident after it occurred.

Are New Regulations the Solution?

Some say that the problem in the US is that the current OSHA rules on laboratories weren’t written with genetic manipulation of viruses and bacteria in mind. The situation is no different in Canada. But are new safety regulations really the solution?

The Times article notes that some safety experts in the biotechnology industry argue that there’s no big safety problem and that workers are adequately protected by various voluntary guidelines on safe laboratory practices and by OSHA’s equivalent of the general duty clause.

What do you think—Does the government need to do a better job of updating the OHS laws to reflect new hazards or is the general duty clause enough protection for workers?

  • Cheryl Melcher

    Yes, I think they need to be updated to help us enforce safety in our labs. We just had an update to our clothing policy and we have requested that all employees working on the benches in the lab wear pants vs skirts/capri pants and covered safety shoes. Well I can tell you lab employee do not take kindly to change and have resisted complying to these new safety rules. If the regs were updated it would help us keep people safe.
    Thanks