Safety Compliance

A Team Effort at Texas A&M

By Christina Phillis

On any given day, the Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) team at Texas A&M University encounters a variety of potential hazards. As the largest university in Texas and one that offers nationally recognized research centers, labs, and institutes, it’s something that comes with the territory.

Situated right in the heart of the Texas Triangle in College Station, a former railroad town, Texas A&M was established as the first public institution of higher education in Texas. Its main campus, referred to affectionately as Aggieland, takes up 600 acres and is home to 64,126 students. Ensuring a safe place for all of these students to learn and 3,750 faculty members to work is the goal of the roughly 60 safety personnel that make up their EHS department. It’s a responsibility the team takes very seriously and accomplishes by working with faculty, staff, and students.

“Texas A&M is committed to excellence. Providing a safe environment in which faculty can perform their research, students can learn, staff can work, and visitors can enjoy themselves is foundational to that excellence,” said Erich H. Fruchtnicht, MS, CHMM, assistant radiation safety officer and senior health physicist.

For a university of this size, EHS involves everything from food and radiological safety to indoor air quality and hazardous material shipping. When a researcher is working with a new laser system, for example, they go to the EHS team for help determining the setup that will provide the highest level of safety while still allowing researchers to accomplish their work.

The team not only observes university rules and standards, but also regulations from government institutions. These include the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Fire Marshall at the regional level and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nationally.

Safety compliance is integral to their success as a research university. To acquire grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers often must demonstrate compliance with applicable safety regulations. EHS provides that compliance support, enabling research teams to acquire NIH grants, and providing appropriate safeguards for the hazardous materials or substances being used in the research attached to those grants. Even when no incidents have occurred, compliance can be a reputational risk.

“EHS at Texas A&M minimizes this risk through our cooperative relationships with every operational unit at Texas A&M and the other university system agencies with whom we have partnerships,” said Fruchtnicht.

Amid these competing interests, Texas A&M has developed a robust, multi-faceted safety program that addresses the many roles and functions at their university. It involves communicating with and educating everyone on best practices, securing the best safety equipment and supplies available, and establishing processes that continually reinforce safety concepts.

Leveraging Communication

To maintain a strong safety program, Texas A&M EHS personnel work with various departments to communicate and educate faculty, staff, and students on government regulations and relevant risks and hazards.

“We want all of our research staff to be able to go home to their families confident they have an EHS team at work that sincerely cares about their health, well-being, and the success of their research,” said Fruchtnicht.

The line of communication starts with department heads. Getting their buy-in and perspective on safety compliance is a critical first step in maintaining the relationships that help enforce this program.

“Department heads act as CEOs of their respective departments. They are where the buck stops for all the faculty and research teams under their department’s purview,” said Fruchtnicht.

The department heads understand the importance of maximizing safety compliance to get the most from their research. Much like Texas A&M’s top-ranked football team, the entire lab group is affected if a team member is injured or equipment malfunctions.

Principal investigators (PIs) and lab managers are next in the line of communication and are a great source of information about present hazards. They have a great deal of influence over research assistants and post-docs, and must set the tone and communicate the importance of safety compliance to their lab groups. In turn, EHS can help them find and purchase the most appropriate safety equipment based on the group’s specific research projects. EHS can also facilitate on-campus demonstrations with safety suppliers of the newest, most up-to-date personal protective equipment (PPE). This encourages conversation, and helps lab groups open up about their specific work experiences.  

“Working with the Fisher Scientific channel and our safety specialists, Michael Dupree and Ben Kaster, has been great. Their willingness to work closely with EHS to disseminate safety and compliance information just expands on the work EHS is already doing and increases our ability to reach an even broader audience on campus with our cooperative message,” said Fruchtnicht.

EHS is also involved with the larger campus. Their staff members sit on campus-wide committees that involve university employees from other departments to help facilitate communication. They disseminate safety information to the entire university via Facebook, Twitter, and the “Safety Dispatch,” an electronic newsletter. University-wide email lists are used for quickly sharing critical policy updates. All of these efforts combined serve as a means to reach people wherever they are.

“We want all of our research staff to be able to go home to their families confident they have an EHS team at work that sincerely cares.”

Facilitating Training

In addition to broadcasting safety information, EHS provides training programs for different functions. Depending on what’s needed, they’ll set up hands-on exercises, online modules, lecture-style in-class trainings, and one-on-one sessions. They’ll even meet with lab groups to show them how they can better ensure safety in their specific lab spaces. Their annual “Dorm Burn,” where they ignite a trailer that’s set up like a dorm, is just one example of the demonstrations they use to communicate the importance of safety rules.

Checks for up-to-date training procedures are included during annual inspections. All EHS-delivered training is tracked electronically, and lab-specific training offered by PIs or lab managers is documented on site. Before students are allowed to work with equipment requiring specialized training, embedded safety personnel verify their training statuses.

Performing Audits

At a major university like Texas A&M, safety compliance is a continual process. There may be a change in regulations, or new hazardous materials or equipment may be introduced. And there are always new students, faculty, and staff who need help learning their safety compliance responsibilities. In addition to communicating best practices, the EHS team also performs audits and inspections to ensure that regulations are being followed and to recognize new situations.

Formal checklists are used for audits and inspections to identify “hot-button” issues that vary based on the lab type. A radiation lab might require inspection of radioactive materials, x-rays, and lasers. One audit revealed a lab that had difficulty clearly identifying which refrigerators were for research use only, a definite safety risk. The EHS team was able to rapidly assist with appropriate labels and signage to indicate “non-food use” and “no chemical storage” to eliminate the risk.

After any audits and inspections are performed, EHS communicates their expectations about changes that need to happen, and follows up to make sure corrections are implemented. Deficiencies identified are re-evaluated to see what progress has been made. EHS can then offer additional help or escalate the issue to the PI or the department head as necessary.

Preparing for Emergencies

In case of an emergency, university teams and technology are integrated with local police, fire, and EMS. Within EHS, there are 24-hour on-call emergency response teams and emergency management plans for all the safety disciplines that they cover. There is also a separate university emergency management team that works closely with EHS and interacts with local municipal and regional emergency management groups.

As for technology, emergency generators are available to support many buildings in the event of a power loss, and uninterruptable power supplies can be deployed to support sensitive equipment as needed.

Looking to the Future

New hazards are constantly emerging, so the EHS team invests in professional development for their personnel. They receive up-to-date training and information on the latest trends in university research, regulatory updates and their implications, and best practices. Dedicated team members keep tabs on the Federal Register, Texas regulation publications, and other resources to stay current with applicable updates.

Fruchtnicht expects interdisciplinary research to play a much bigger role in their safety program in the future. Within a single research project, faculty, staff, and students may be working with multiple biological, chemical, and radiological hazards. As research evolves at their university, the Texas A&M EHS team is well positioned to advance with it.