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Monday, 21 March 2011 15:21

Colleges and Universities

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The large number and wide variety of operations and hazardous materials involved in teaching, research and support service activities present a challenge to health and safety management in colleges and universities. The very nature of research implies risk: challenging the limits of current knowledge and technology. Many research activities in science, engineering and medicine require sophisticated and expensive facilities, technology and equipment which may not be readily available or have yet to be developed. Research activities within existing facilities may also evolve and change without the facilities being modified to contain them safely. Many of the most hazardous activities are performed infrequently, periodically or on an experimental basis. Hazardous materials used in teaching and research often include some of the most dangerous substances and hazards with unavailable or poorly documented safety and toxicity data. These are commonly used in relatively small quantities under less than ideal conditions by poorly trained personnel. Health and safety hazards are not always easily recognized or readily acknowledged by highly educated academics with specialized fields of expertise who may have a poor regard for legislative or administrative controls when these are perceived to limit academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a sacred principle, fiercely guarded by academics, some of whom may be experts in their disciplines. Any legislative or institutional constraints which are perceived as encroaching on this principle will be fought and may even be disregarded. Methods for the identification and control of health and safety hazards associated with teaching and research activities cannot be readily imposed. Academics need to be persuaded that health and safety policies support and enhance the primary mission rather than confine it. Policies, where they exist, tend to protect the academic mission and the rights of individuals, rather than to conform with external regulations and standards. Liability and accountability issues affecting teachers and researchers directly may have more effect than rules.

Most health and safety legislation, standards and guidance criteria are developed for industry with large quantities of relatively few chemicals, well documented hazards, established procedures and a stable workforce within a well defined management system. The academic environment differs from industry in almost every aspect. In some jurisdictions academic institutions may even be exempt from health and safety legislation.

Academic institutions are generally hierarchical in their management systems, with academics at the top followed by non-academic professionals, technicians and support staff. Graduate students are often employed on a part-time basis to perform a variety of teaching and research functions. Academics are appointed to senior management positions for specific terms with little management experience or training. Frequent turn-over may result in a lack of continuity. Within this system, senior researchers, even within large institutions, are granted relative autonomy to manage their affairs. They are usually in control of their own budgets, facility design, purchasing, organization of work and hiring of personnel. Hazards may be overlooked or go unrecognized.

It is common practice for researchers in academic institutions to employ graduate students as research assistants in a master/apprentice relationship. These individuals are not always protected under health and safety laws. Even if covered by legislation, they are frequently reluctant to exercise their rights or to voice safety concerns to their supervisors who may also be responsible for evaluating their academic performance. Long hours under great pressure, overnight and weekend work with minimal supervision and skeleton support services are routine. Cost saving and energy conservation efforts may even reduce essential services such as security and ventilation during nights and weekends. Though students are not usually protected by health and safety legislation, due diligence requires that they are treated with the same level of care as is provided for employees.

Potential Hazards

The range of hazards can be extremely broad depending upon the size and nature of the institution, the type of academic programmes offered and the nature of research activities (see table 1). Small colleges offering only liberal arts programmes may have relatively few hazards while comprehensive universities with schools of medicine, engineering and fine arts and extensive research programmes may have a complete range, including some very serious hazards, such as toxic chemicals, biohazards, reproductive hazards, ionizing and non-ionizing radiations and various other physical agents.

Table 1.  Summary of hazards in colleges and universities.

Type of hazard



Toxic chemicals

(carcinogens, teratogens, caustics, heavy metals, asbestos, silica)

Lab chemicals, solvents, degreasers, glues, art supplies, manometers, thermometers, photochemicals, dyes, hazardous waste

Laboratories, art studios, workshops, health care facilities, maintenance operations, machine shops, theatres, darkrooms, engineering, hockey arenas

Flammables and explosives

Lab chemicals, cleaning agents, solvents, fuels

Laboratories, maintenance operations, workshops, art studios, construction sites


Fumigation, rodent and pest control, disinfectants

Housekeeping, groundskeeping, greenhouse, agriculture

Biological agents

Animal handling, cell and tissue cultures, blood and body fluids, diagnostic specimens, contaminated sharps, solid waste

Animal care facilities, health care, housekeeping, laboratories

Non-ionizing radiation

Lasers, microwaves, magnets, electronics, ultraviolet light

Laboratories, electrical operations, health care facilities, workshops, technical operations

Ionizing radiation

Radioisotopes, gas chromatography, x-rays, calibration, reactors, neutron generators, waste management

Laboratories, medical facilities, engineering


Materials handling, office work, computers

Libraries, offices, maintenance operations, movers, truck drivers, food services


Outdoor work, overexertion

Groundskeeping, public safety, maintenance, field work, agriculture and forestry


Machinery, boilers and pressure vessels, computers, construction and maintenance, ventilation systems

Boiler rooms, print shops, maintenance and grounds, construction operations, computer rooms, labs, machine shops, art studios


Internal community, external community, domestic disputes, civil disobedience

Classrooms, places of assembly, accounts, stores, food service, personnel department, security operations


Electrical equipment, construction and maintenance operations, amateur wiring jobs, special events

Laboratories, workshops, maintenance shops, construction sites, electronic shops, residences, theatre, special events

Compressed gases

Laboratory equipment and operations, welding operations, coolants, ice-making equipment, construction

Laboratories, metal shops, construction sites, machine shops, hockey arenas

Machine hazards

Materials handling, robots, maintenance and construction work

Printing shops, maintenance and grounds operations, engineering, science and technical laboratories, machine shops

Sharp objects

Broken glass, cutting instruments, needles, lab vessels, test tubes

Housekeeping, laboratories, health care, art studios, workshops


Maintenance and groundskeeping, hazardous materials handling, machine and motor vehicle operations and office work are common to most institutions and comprise hazards which are covered elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia.

Workplace violence is an emerging issue of particular concern for teaching staff, front-line personnel, money handlers and security personnel.

Large institutions may be compared to small towns where a population lives and works. Issues of personal and community safety interface with occupational health and safety concerns.

Control of Hazards

Hazard identification through the usual processes of inspection and incident and injury investigation need to be preceded by careful review of proposed programmes and facilities prior to the start up of activities. The occupational and environmental risk aspects of new research projects and academic programmes should be taken into consideration in the earliest stages of the planning process. Researchers may not be aware of legislative requirements or safety standards applicable to their operations. For many projects, researchers and safety professionals need to work together to develop the safety procedures as the research proceeds and new hazards emerge.

Ideally the safety culture is incorporated into the academic mission - for example, through inclusion of relevant health and safety information into course curricula and laboratory and procedure manuals for students as well as specific health and safety information and training for employees. Hazard communication, training and supervision are critical.

In laboratories, art studios and workshops, general ventilation control needs to be augmented by local exhaust ventilation. Containment of biohazards and isolation or shielding of radioisotopes are necessary in certain cases. Personal protective equipment, while not a primary prevention method in most situation, may be the option of choice for temporary set-ups and some experimental conditions.

Hazardous materials and waste management programmes are usually required. Centralized purchasing and distribution of commonly used chemicals and micro-scale experiments in teaching prevent the storage of large volumes in individual laboratories, studios and workshops.

The maintenance of an emergency response and disaster recovery plan in anticipation of major events which overwhelm the normal response capabilities will mitigate the health and safety effects of a serious incident.



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