A respected nuclear physicist mistakenly allows his graduate assistant to run a workshop at the university's small-scale version of a nuclear reactor and exposes the class to radiation. At another institution, a fume hood fails to contain an acrid gas in a chemistry laboratory, causing several students to be rushed to the hospital.
With so many potential risks of serious health-and-safety problems at colleges and universities, you'd think that safety officers would be among the best-known administrators on any campus. Yet they have one of those jobs in higher education that tends to be invisible, much like auditors or institutional researchers: Everyone knows they're important, but no one quite understands what they do.
In a June column, I explored the role of the college auditor. Many readers wrote to thank me for demystifying the craft and showing how an auditor's job is to protect not only the institution but also those who work there. So I'd like to take the same approach to health-and-safety officers.
The sheer number of risks to health and safety—especially at research universities—is considerable. That's why most institutions support a health-and-safety officer, and often an entire office of them. The position has become indispensable, no matter that many people on campus are unaware of the safety officer's existence.
Safety offices are variously named and have missions specific to their institutions. At the University of South Florida, the division of environmental health and safety provides "education, hazard assessment, exposure mitigation, and the responsible management of hazardous materials." At Iowa State University, the department of environmental health and safety seeks to protect employees and the public from "chemical, microbiological and physical health hazards. ... These factors may be present as a result of workplace activities, ineffective building systems, or environmental influences."
On my own campus, Idaho State University, we have a technical safety office. Because Idaho State offers programs in nuclear engineering, health physics, and the health sciences, it is no surprise that the safety office's mission is "to ensure that radiation and radioactivity, lasers, and hazardous and biomedical wastes at ISU are managed safely and in accordance with applicable federal and state laws and regulations."
The overriding objective of any university safety office is twofold: to protect people from harm, and to protect the institution from liability. The most successful safety officer is one who continually focuses on accident prevention and regulatory compliance rather than on reacting to safety crises.
The typical safety office will monitor biohazards produced from research on, say, a virulent virus or bacterium. It will oversee appropriate disposal of hazardous waste, chemical-spill response protocols, and Environmental Protection Agency compliance and reporting. And, of course, it will coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security when the university handles substances that are high security.
A full-service safety office, however, monitors much more than exotic hazards. It will also be concerned with such risks as asbestos exposure, asthma triggers in the workplace (bacteria, mold, and fungi associated with sick-building syndrome), fire hazards, indoor air pollution, and machine-shop safety.
Sometimes the problems are far more mundane. One safety officer told me that his "biggest headache" is controlling potential accidents caused by departmental or personal negligence, such as "storing" items in public hallways adjacent to faculty offices.
"It's amazing how many fire and safety hazards faculty and staff will create if left unchecked," he said. "I've seen file cabinets and unwanted desks shoved out into hallways, boxes of books stacked five high, and even people's personal refrigerators and hot plates set up in the hallway as if this public space were an extension of their office."
Another safety officer told me that he himself was injured when he tripped on the power cord of a faculty member's refrigerator, which was located in the hallway just outside a research laboratory.
"It was a bit embarrassing," he said. "Here I was, the university's safety officer, in the process of investigating potential safety risks, and I myself became victim to one."
Asked to name the problems he and his colleagues most commonly face, a safety officer gave me this list:
• Extension cords. That includes using cords of insufficient thickness to handle the power requirements of the devices being used; running cords under doors, particularly if they are pinched when the door opens or closes; and failing to replace a frayed or otherwise damaged cord.
• Bookcases. The big problem here is failing to secure bookcases to a wall when they are more than four feet tall. A colleague was permanently injured when a bookcase tipped over and fell on him in a freak accident.
• Clutter. Creating tripping hazards of any sort, or any clutter that can prevent rapid egress in the event of an emergency.
• Chairs. Tilting back in a four-legged chair so that only two of the legs are touching the ground has caused a surprisingly large number of office accidents. The motto here should be, "Keep six feet on the ground!"
• Improper storage. You're asking for trouble if you store combustibles under staircases, in stairwells, in hallways, or too close to the ceiling.
• Unrated ladders. University employees should obtain equipment approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Fiberglass ladders, not aluminum, are usually recommended, especially since they are not conductors of electricity.
• Hoarding. Storing excessive amounts of belongings in an office is both a fire hazard and a potential obstacle to egress. I have had several colleagues over the years whose offices were so excessively cramped with books and stacks of papers that one was tempted to wonder if this were not a manifestation of some underlying mental-health problem.
If your research involves specific safety issues such as nuclear waste or biohazards, then you will need to follow the appropriate guidelines and regulations. But the rest of us, too, can take steps to improve the safety climate on our campuses.
So don't rig wiring. Don't keep a hot plate inches away from a large stack of papers. Immediately report an acrid or unusual odor. Don't exceed the fire code's maximum capacity of a classroom by moving in extra desks. And when in doubt, check with the campus safety officer.