Cal Poly Humboldt lab safety under scrutiny


by Ollie Hancock

From admin to student, everyone on campus has responsibility for the dangers of working with hazardous waste and materials. Spills, breaks, and general accidents are expected in any lab. No one can prevent a beaker from breaking, but the university should give students and employees the tools, equipment, and training to react appropriately. Instead, departments create patchwork standards without direction from the administration. A messy lab can indicate a campus-wide issue. 

“I know that beakers break pretty often, and spills are common too. It’s eventful in there. I don’t think they filed reports for those or anything,” said Clara Lanesskog, a Cal Poly Humboldt student in a chemistry class. “We just clean it up and go on with the day.” 

Beyond safety oversight and training in case of accidents, students need quality lab safety education. Lanesskog has seen classroom accidents escalate due to lack of risk management. Students see lab accidents frequently and don’t know how to report them.

“Our instructor disappears a lot,” Lanesskog said. “So if we were to spill acid or something, we don’t know where to find him unless he came back.” This was the case when Lanesskog spilled acid on her leg during a lab.

“You’re on a time limit, so you feel rushed. There’s not enough space for you to work. Everyone is bumping into each other, trying to rush, and that is how I ended up spilling,” Lanesskog said. She didn’t submit a report.

“My professor wasn’t there, and he’s not usually there towards the end of our lab,” Lanesskog said. “Honestly, it didn’t seem like too big of a deal to me because other people have done it too.”

On the University of California Santa Barbara EH&SS website there are public reports of every school chemistry accident and date, including near misses where no one was injured. Their transparency shows awareness and rigor regarding preventative measures. They treat each incident seriously, regardless of scale. At Humboldt, incidents have gone unreported. Only recently has the EH&SS reevaluated how professors are trained to react to incidents. According to our standard operating procedures, any incident should be reported in 24 hours. On Humboldt’s EH&SS website, there is no obvious link to the incident report form.

Terrilyn Stoflet worked as a hazardous materials technician at Humboldt during the pandemic. In the course of their job, they often felt unsafe.

“I don’t think we have a very good safety culture on campus,” Stoflet said. “It just never gets talked about until something bad happens.”

They felt the campus didn’t have enough staff or administrative support to be accountable for environmental health and safety.

 In 2019, Humboldt underwent a Health and Safety audit as part of a CSU-wide investigation. The completed audit cited 21 violations, reflecting a lack of rigor in campus safety regulations. This campus is not alone. A state audit of the CSU system found that Sonoma State and Sacramento State also cited limited resources as explanation for their violations. The story was similar across CSU campuses; the state concluded that the CSU chancellor’s office was responsible. 

“For over two decades, the University Audit has repeatedly recommended that the CSU Chancellor’s Office increase its oversight of employee and student health and safety training and inspections of laboratory equipment and workplace hazards,” read the audit report by state auditor Elaine Howle. 

Training programs failed to check if all employees and students who handled hazardous materials and waste were certified. There was no record of which employees worked with hazardous materials, and in the stockroom, waste wasn’t consistently labeled. No self-assessments for safety were conducted in labs, and lab techs didn’t dispose of waste in a timely manner. The list of issues goes on. No serious incidents have occurred as a result, but the audit reveals a looming threat to the campus and community. 

Sabrina Zink is the Environmental Health & Safety Services (EH&SS) coordinator and the only admin charged with attending to these issues. Zink says she was relieved when the audit brought attention to the problems.  After the audit in 2019, EH&SS planned to meet the regulations set by the CSU. Three years later, progress is unclear.

“Before we just had a paper reporting system,” Zink said. “We worked out a new incident reporting process so we can keep track of if it was a training issue or operator error, or an issue with oversight. And reiterated to faculty that [incidents] do need to be reported.”

 Funding made available by the polytechnic transition along with an increase in the administration’s willingness to address these issues made way for some progress in Fall 2022. More administrative staff and on-the-ground technicians have since been hired by EH&SS. However, many solutions are still waiting to be rolled out. 

“Now we have another coordinator in the EH&SS to help with implementing all the audit findings,” Zink said. “And we’re looking for another person for occupational safety to address incident follow up.” 

After the 2019 audit of campus health and safety, the EH&SS office made a plan to introduce new training and support to address the violations found. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the EH&SS office’s priorities to managing the spread of the virus on campus. The small team was tasked with writing the trainings, mandates, and regulations that defined campus life for two years. Corrections to every-day safety policy based on the audit were left behind in the shuffle. EH&SS struggled, lacking the bandwidth and support to solve these issues on top of managing COVID-19 concerns.

“A few years back, before this audit, I had been screaming from the mountain tops,” Zink said. “Please, someone take this seriously.”  

Due to the fragmented nature of campus departments, there was no consistency in the content or frequency of safety training. The audit found no record of who is certified to handle hazardous materials and waste. Zink wrote trainings that were never assigned. New trainings will roll out in the spring 2023 semester, Zink says. 

 Aside from organizational problems, the campus has inadequate facilities that made some employees feel unsafe.

“This shed, which is at facility management’s place, it’s unsafe,” Stofelt said. “What my partners and I have had to do in that shed is so stupid, and it’s dangerous. There’s a bunch of rat excrement everywhere.” Beside the rats, the shed itself has structural hazards. A set of detachable stairs leads to racks on the second level, where lab techs carry 15-gallon drums of chemicals and hazardous waste up and down.

Hazardous waste jugs from various departments are processed in the shed, which is also full of personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies for HAZMAT technicians. According to Zink, the shed is already outdated for campus needs. 

“We need something more fit for our needs, especially as we grow and potentially would be generating more hazardous waste,” Zink said. “We’re going to need more space and something that doesn’t leak during the winter.” 

There are plans to build a new shed, but no location has been chosen.

Safety standards and regulations vary from department to department. This inconsistent system lets minor infractions slip through the cracks. Facilities often don’t relay the message to techs when bins need disposal. In the darkroom, bins of used chemicals sat full for weeks, nearly overflowing. 

As the campus grows with polytechnic status and an emphasis on STEM classes, these issues will only grow. The EH&SS has made some progress toward addressing the issues brought up in the audit, but there is still much work to be done.

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