The issues of safety information in open notebook science
Research in most places today is done under more or less rigorous safety regimes. A general approach which I believe is fairly universal is that any action should in principle be ‘Risk Assessed’. For many everyday procedures such an assessment may not need to be written down but it is general practise in the UK that there needs to be a paper trail that demonstrates that such risk assessments are carried out. In practise this means that there is generally for any given laboratory procedure a document of some form in which the risks are assessed. This may in many cases be a tick box list or pro forma document.
In addition in the UK there is an obligation to consider whether a particular substance requires a specific assessment under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. Again these are usually based on a pro forma template. Most researchers will have a folder containing both risk and COSHH assessments, or these may be held in a laboratory wide folder depending on local practise.
This month we have an extra person in working on our netural drift project which is being recorded in this blog. She felt that as the blog is the lab book it must contain these risk assessments and you can see these here. I have no problem with this and indeed it seems like a good idea to have this information available. So from the perspective of the group and electronic notebook practise this is good.
From the open notebook perspective, if we are working towards applying the slogan of ‘No insider information’ this must necessarily include safety information. If we say how to do an experiment this arguably should include not just the procedure but other details: how do you work, what protection might you need, how should waste be disposed of. Many journals now request that any specific safety issues should be flagged in methods sections of papers.
But there is a flip side here. I am happy that our safety documentation is robust and works so I am not worried about ‘the inspectors’ seeing it on the web. Indeed I feel that having your work exposed is a good way of raising standards. It can be a bit bracing but if you’re not prepared to have the details of methodology public then should you be publishing it? Equally if you are worried about a bit of scrutiny of your safety documentation then should your lab really be operating at all?
However, what if someone takes this safety information, uses it, and still manages to injure themselves? What if the regulations in the UK are different, say, from those in the US. There is the potential for legal exposure here and this is the reason why most safety information from a chemical supplier says that anyone handling the compound in questions should use ventilators and full body protection (including for table salt and sugar). There is very little useful safety information available because anything that suggests that a particular compound is ‘safe’ creates legal exposure. We could put a disclaimer on our safety information to try and avoid this but that seems a little like cheating. Being ‘open’ means being open about as much as possible. I feel on balance that we should include it but there is a good argument we should leave it out or hide it for our own protection.