Owen Hildreth

Owen Hildreth in lab. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU.

Jonathan Klane, Assistant Director of Safety Programs in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, talked with Owen Hildreth, an assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Fulton Schools, about his personal interest and commitment to lab safety.

Interview with Owen Hildreth in his SCOB 191 lab:
Jon: Where or when did your interest in safety come from or start?
Owen: After working in industry for five years I became accustomed to the fact that new hires don’t know what they are doing and need to be trained in order to work properly. Industry is very aware of their responsibilities and the liabilities associated with their environment. When I started working in academia, I saw students using hydrofluoric acid without gloves, safety glasses, or any training. Students are often left to figure everything out themselves, which is not efficient nor healthy. As a “boss” it is my responsibility to make sure that my students know how to function in my lab.

There are a number of benefits to being a “safety conscious” mentor. First is the obvious reduction in liability – accidents will happen but the training I give helps reduce my liability should something go horribly wrong. However, that benefit is a statistically low one. The day-to-day benefits are where the real payoff is. My students inspect the lab every day – as a result, the lab is kept clean, supplies are always in the proper location. Keeping things clean and well-organized helps my students work faster, more efficiently and minimizes cross-contamination between experiments. Overall, a safe lab works faster and produces better data, saving me time and money.

Jon: What have you found successful?
Owen: I’m new here. So far, so good. The main thing I do is make my expectations clear and give my students an easy-to-implement plan for keeping things clean and organized. I have a check-off sheet of key safety issues that are often encountered (chemicals left out, chemical spills, expired experiments, etc.). Every day, the first student to work in the lab is required to inspect that lab prior to starting work. If there are any problems, the lab is shut down until it is fixed. Essentially, nobody can work until things are correct. By making individual issues a group issue, I’ve eliminated the ability of my students to ignore other people’s messes/spills. The “not-my-responsibility” mentality often found in research groups is eliminated entirely from my lab with very little effort on my part.

Effort is a key factor. Safety is easier than being unsafe if you set your group culture up correctly. I also use safety as a method to weed out potential graduate hires. Being clean and safe is simple and, from what I’ve experienced, people who can’t do simple things correctly won’t do the difficult ones correctly either.

Jon: How do you achieve a positive safety culture?
Owen: I use a checklist, we police others and ourselves. I also set daily expectations for the lab. We focus on the things most likely to go wrong or get out of control. The checklist tends to limit “arguments” over what is acceptable or not. The daily inspections provide students with a framework to resolve their issues without much intervention on my part. I also have simple, widely enforced consequences of breaking my lab rules. If someone breaks my rules I take away their lab privileges for 1-3 days. Learning and working in my lab is a privilege, not a right. While it might be hard to do, there is always work outside of lab that needs to be done and a one day suspension is a small reminder to do things properly.

Jon: How are the typical lab protocols followed daily?
Owen: We use signs — two examples are the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) hazard diamond and “Experiment in progress.” We have “Monday inspections.” If there are any problems, then the lab can’t be opened. It works.

Jon: Any advice to a new primary investigator starting a lab regarding safety?
Owen: Have a vision, a concept of what you want. Follow Environmental Health and Safety advice. Use a checklist. Set clear and enforceable consequences, without any of the drama.

Jon: How do you see yourself as a safety leader?
Owen: I have 14 more years of life and professional experience than my new students. I don’t expect them to know how to do everything correctly, so I’ve set up a system where my expectations are clear, easy to follow and easy to document. I minimize my work by enabling them to quickly inspect the lab in a manner that takes very little effort for me to follow up on.


Jonathan Klane
Assistant Director of Safety Programs
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
Arizona State University