We all want to be safe in the lab but, human nature being what it is, we are not always rigorous about doing everything exactly as it should be. The first person you think about in the lab is yourself – what are you doing, what could go wrong? But the next person you think about is your lab partner and it is a little different, as you are not really thinking about what he might do (though if he is doing something clearly unsafe, you should step in) but more how might what you are doing will affect him and also how you are doing it will affect his opinion of you. In other words, you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a peer. Likewise, mutually acceptable bad habits are tacitly reinforced.
Bad habits aren’t necessarily submerged when you share a lab with a conscientious worker, though pressure from a more senior level might do it. If your boss or supervisor is a stickler for safety, it is a good bet you are too and again, if they let things slide, chances are you won’t be the one to make trouble and take a stand.
What makes a supervisor strict on safety? Well, the collection of his own experiences in the lab, his training and mentors. But pressure from his superior makes a big difference too, especially on the enforcement of safety policy. Lots of companies have extensive safety policies and procedures but it is only with enforcement and reinforcement that they become part of the safety culture of a place.
I have seen many times a particular incident, maybe only a minor infraction of the safety rules, but noticed by the right person and suddenly that minor rule becomes of vital importance that everyone follows it to the letter. These show that when stronger enforcement is desired, much greater adherence is attained. Conversely, when a blind eye is turned, more corners are cut.
But what makes management crack down on safety issues? What makes them lax? Generally, the company is stricter when it is more concerned with how safety issues would be perceived by outside observers. A contractor will not gain many contracts if they have a history of spills and fires. Pressure from regulators (the dreaded OSHA inspection) also promotes safety as a priority. Safety becomes lax when it is results that the outsiders are more concerned about: the share-holders don’t want to hear about a runaway reaction, but they mostly want to hear about the bottom line, the contracts completed, the projects success.
And so the safety chain builds up. Safety comes from the top down. If the management doesn’t care to push safety issues (or just gives lip service) then the rank and file will cut the corners they can.