July 25, 2018 / Kay Bechtold

What Affects Researchers’ Risk Perception in Academic Labs?

Editor’s note: In anticipation of next month’s labs-focused issue, The Synergist looks back at an AIHce session on safety in academic laboratories. The August 2018 issue of the magazine will include articles on new requirements for laboratories and accreditation bodies under revised ISO standards; the differences between laboratory accreditation, proficiency testing, and registries; and how to apply the ANSI Z9.5 standard on laboratory ventilation.

An international survey of laboratory safety practices conducted by the UC Center for Laboratory Safety in 2012 found that more than 50 percent of researchers in academic laboratories underestimate their risk, Imke Schroeder explained on May 21 at AIHce EXP in Philadelphia. In a session focused on risk perception in academic labs, Schroeder, senior research project manager for UCCLS, said that the majority of researchers surveyed perceived themselves to work at low or moderate risk. Researchers’ safety behavior strongly correlates with how they view their risk in the laboratory, and inaccurately perceived risk can cause inadequate safety behavior, she said.

Researchers are focused on important goals, including finishing an experiment, making a big discovery, developing new technology, finishing a thesis, landing a grant—the list goes on.

“With all of that in mind, risk very often fades into the background,” Schroeder said.

“Soft” factors that influence researchers’ risk perception include voluntariness, controllability, and trust. Schroeder used Ebola research as an example to illustrate voluntariness—the perception that risk is attenuated if chosen voluntarily but amplified if it’s imposed.

“If it’s my choice to work with Ebola, the risk feels less,” she said. “But if my PI [principal investigator] approaches me about it, then my [perception of] risk would be much more heightened, though the hazards are the same.”

Regarding controllability, Schroeder explained that researchers feel that risks perceived to be under one’s own control are more acceptable than risks perceived to be controlled by others. She said that trust also plays an enormous role: if researchers communicate hazards and risks with one another, they can build a more trustful environment and reduce perceived risk. Other factors that influence risk perception are the “delay effect,” which refers to the lengthy latency between the initial event or chemical exposure and the actual health effects or physical damage; whether a risk is natural or manmade (natural risks are perceived to be higher than manmade risks such as explosions, which are perceived as preventable); and familiarity and habituation. Schroeder explained that if researchers are familiar with a hazard, they perceive the risk associated with it to be lower.

Risk perception is also correlated with major lab-related injuries, and the severity of the injury matters. Schroeder noted that researchers are more likely to protect themselves when they anticipate negative consequences, and they are significantly more likely to wear a lab coat and eye protection when perceived risk is high. But the same is not true for gloves, which researchers are motivated to wear more regularly to protect the integrity of their experiments as well as themselves.

“Researchers do not want to be exposed, but they also want to protect their experiments from bacteria, oils, and skin particles,” Schroeder said. “Gloves provide a dual incentive.”

The 2012 survey found that risk perception was independent of researchers’ age, job experience, and participation in safety training. The survey also showed that PIs had no impact on researchers’ risk perception. Schroeder feels that these results identify gaps that must be addressed at academic institutions. She recommends providing risk assessment training for researchers and encouraging PIs to do more to raise awareness about risks in laboratories with their students.

On the other hand, PIs could affect whether students felt safe in the research environment. If a PI is actively engaged, students report fewer accidents, including both minor and major injuries, Schroeder said.

“Feeling safe is dependent on how safety is prioritized in the lab,” she explained. “In a community where everyone cares about one’s own and others’ well-being, people can make the right choices for safety behavior.”


The Synergist: “New Report Promotes Safety Culture in Academic Labs” (August 2014).

The Synergist: “New Web Resource Focuses on Hazard Assessment in Research Laboratories” (November 2016).

The Synergist: “Safety Test: What’s Behind the Rash of Accidents in Academic Laboratories?​” (AIHA member login required; August 2014).

Kay Bechtold

Kay Bechtold is senior editor of The Synergist. ​


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