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NIST Safety Failures Prompt Cultural Reset

NOV 07, 2023
NIST leaders say the agency is hiring more safety staff, overhauling its safety training, and pushing for facilities repairs in the wake of several high-profile incidents.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
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A testing facility inside the National Fire Research Laboratory located at NIST’s campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which was the site of a fatal accident in 2022.

(NIST)

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to step-up its safety practices following a series of serious incidents at agency-run facilities.

It has been a “tough year” for NIST since the fatal fall of an engineering technician at its fire research lab last September, said NIST Director Laurie Locascio during a briefing last month for the agency’s primary advisory panel.

“We now recognize that we have to fundamentally change our culture and our practices, and we need to be guided by a vision for excellence and safety at NIST,” Locascio said.

The accidental death came in the wake of a radiation incident at the agency’s research reactor in early 2021 that was triggered by a refueling error. Though the incident did not endanger the public, the reactor’s coolant system was contaminated and it has yet to resume normal operations.

A safety commission formed in response to these incidents published a damning review of NIST’s safety practices in August, concluding the agency has a “weak safety culture” and that staff often feel pressured to downplay the potential risks of their work to avoid triggering additional approval processes.

The commission also found that “chronic underfunding” of NIST facilities has created unsafe work conditions and “fueled the impression among researchers that safety is not a priority, as they often feel compelled to undertake unauthorized workarounds to enable their work to be completed.”

Reflecting on these findings during the October meeting, Locascio said that NIST had failed to treat safety as being of equivalent importance to maintaining excellence in its research and the way it conducts business – something she has now pledged to change.

NIST’s chief safety officer, Elizabeth Mackey, presented actions the agency has taken to improve its safety culture during the same meeting. Mackey said NIST staff working on potentially hazardous projects are now required to go through extra review steps and are being urged to make sure that “cost isn’t a consideration when you look at how to mitigate hazards.”

NIST is also updating its safety training courses to include more relevant case studies and examples. The agency will now regularly require staff to complete refresher training and is raising the profile of its safety staff so that “we don’t just turn safety over to the scientists to figure it out,” Mackey said.

Mackey noted the agency has approval to hire 12 new safety staff members. Currently there is a ratio of about 160 staff per safety official at NIST, whereas the ratio at two Department of Energy labs is 40 to one, according to a benchmarking exercise NIST conducted.

Mackey said that NIST will spend $9 million over two years on facilities safety improvements, including fall hazard assessments for all buildings on NIST’s two campuses and roof rail installation for all buildings where rooftop work occurs.

“We are taking away research dollars to pay for some of these things,” Mackey added, pointing to constraints on NIST’s budget.

NIST is currently trying to convince Congress to give it far more funding for facilities upgrades each year to address a backlog of repair and modernization projects that exceeds $1 billion.

Addressing this dynamic, Locascio said, “The thing I worry the most about, to be honest with you, is our ability to continue to retain these amazing people if we can’t give them the facilities that they need to do this work. I know for a fact they are getting called by universities all over the world.”

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