Published: 03-05-2017 12:45 | Updated: 04-05-2017 13:56

Unannounced inspections show shortcomings in KI lab environment

Laws and regulations concerning work environment and chemicals are largely adhered to as a major study of laboratory environments commissioned by Karolinska Institutet has revealed. There are, however, some shortcomings. Not all research group leaders take their responsibility for the work environment.

Research groups at fourteen different departments at Karolinska Institutet and SciLifeLab underwent unannounced inspections by an external consultancy firm. The results from the inspections have now been complied in a report, “Inspections of Karolinska Institutet’s Laboratory Environments”. The primary focus was on activities where KI shares the workplace with other organisations and where research groups share premises.

The report is part of the work being done to follow up the external investigation of the Macchiarini case and the internal audit of CLINTEC, the Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology.

Those who were present at the inspections were interviewed for three to four hours. The premises were inspected and among other things storage of chemicals and flammable products, signage, and security systems were checked. Local chemical registers, emergency procedures and documented risk assessments were studied. The inspections were made between November 2016 and February 2017 by consultancy firm Goodpoint.

Knowledge is lacking

According to the report, adherence to laws and regulations is relatively good at Karolinska Institutet. But there are some shortcomings. Knowledge is lacking in many departments of how to use the KLARA chemicals database to search for CMR (Carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic) classified products. Nor is the form that is to be used for these products used as required.

Understanding of what delegated responsibility for the work environment involves also varies. Many research group leaders rely on their lab manager or other key person to take this responsibility, which in fact lies with them.

Anna-Lee Cöster Jansén“We have found that the person who signed a delegation of responsibility for the work environment has not always understood their responsibility,” says one of KI’s Main Health and Safety Delegates, Anna-Lee Cöster Jansén.

“The department head is not only supposed to give someone a piece of paper to sign, but must also make sure that the person accepting the responsibility, for example a research group leader, understands what it means. If a research group leader feels that he or she does not have the knowledge or resources needed, they can in fact return the delegation of work environment responsibility”, Anna-Lee Cöster Jansén goes on.

Follow-up feedback sessions

The unannounced inspections were followed up with feedback sessions that were compulsory for the research group leaders. For 5 of the 35 areas inspected, someone other than the research group leader attended the session and for another 5 no one at all turned up, which according to the report shows the low priority that work environment and lab safety have in these areas.

University Director Per Bengtsson has been thinking about why not everyone attended the sessions.

“In some cases, absence was probably justified and some people might feel that the unannounced inspections are a violation of integrity. But it’s important not to see this as a threat. It’s a system check that is to everyone’s benefit.”

Per Bengtsson believes that it is good to know where there are shortcomings.

“Even if things by and large function well, there are non-conformances that we need to address by improving people’s knowledge. Now we can work with the issue on system level so that everyone understands what lies within their area of responsibility. There is a strong connection between work environment and safety. People can be injured if safety is not adequate.”

Shortcomings in work environment

The report also points out a connection between leadership where work environment matters are not distinctly prioritised and shortcomings in the work environment and safety. Anna-Lee Cöster Jansén has noticed this when she has gone along on safety inspections.

“If the person who is responsible comes along and has used KI’s checklist for Safety Inspections (also see link below), the picture in the lab is usually better. The checklist (link) makes people aware of any deficiencies and they can then be included in an action plan for rectifying non-conformities.”

“KI should now strive for greater awareness of why it is necessary to, for example, make risk assessments,” says Anna-Lee Cöster Jansén.

“They are made to prevent people being injured or in the worst case killed at the workplace and to know how to act if an emergency occurs. I wish that work environment and lab safety, actually making statutory risk assessments and CMR investigations before the experiments, were considered part of day-to-day work, as well as carrying out the experiments themselves.”

Good research results above all

Another thing criticised in the report is that research group leaders feel that KI turns a blind eye to shortcomings in leadership, work environment and lab safety as long as good research results are delivered. Per Bengtsson says that he cannot answer for what the situation was like in the past, but that the present management team feels it is important to prevent things going wrong.

“The vast majority of the mistakes are caused by not having the necessary knowledge, but it is also a matter of how we view mistakes. Good quality comes from feeling secure in one’s role and daring to point out things that have gone wrong. It is a management responsibility to deal with mistakes without stigmatising individual employees,” Per Bengtsson says.

Text: Ann Patmalnieks

These aspects work satisfactorily in most areas:
Handling and storing chemicals
Handling chemical waste
Procedures for purchase of and information management concerning products for which a permit is required
Rules and procedures concerning flammable products
Transportation of liquid nitrogen
Adherence to laws and regulations concerning radioactive substances
Procedures for use and waste management of pharmaceuticals, narcotics and cytostatic substances

Improvements are needed in many areas:
Implementation and follow-ups of safety inspections
Appointment of an inspector for flammable products (flammable products were not put away at the end of the working day in some areas)
Correct labelling of one’s own preparations
Warning notices when chemicals with different properties are kept in the same cupboard
Knowledge to be able to identify CMR (Carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic) classified products in the KLARA database
Use the new CMR identification form to if possible replace the products
Knowledge to be able to search for allergenic products in KLARA
Local knowledge of permits, notifications and conditions concerning bacteria, viruses and human samples
Procedures in emergency situations