Health and Safety Issues:

Colleges Must Take Steps to Avert Serious Problems

By David Fetterman

HEALTH AND SAFETY ISSUES on college campuses are creating increasing concern among administrators, faculty members. students, and the general public, as well as among government regulators. The problems that universities are facing include asbestos and P.C.B. contamination, fire hazards, building-code violations, unsafe storage of chemicals, poorly controlled use and disposal of radioactive material, and dangerous laboratory practices.

Among the institutions that have found themselves on the front pages of national newspapers and magazines in the past several months because of such problems are: Case Western Reserve, Rutgers, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and at San Francisco, and the University of Southern California. The issues for which they were under fire ranged from failure to enforce safety procedures to improperly designed exhaust systems, specific problems included the dumping of acids down laboratory drain pipes, leaks of potentially carcinogenic wastes, and use of a faulty scrubber system at a hazardous waste incinerator.

As a result of these problems, important research laboratories were closed and the construction of new facilities was blocked, jeopardizing scientific research and costing the institutions a great deal. At Stanford, for example, an animal-welfare group used an environmental-impact law to delay the construction of a new biological-research laboratory, a delay that cost the university 51.8-million. Few institutions can sustain such large losses and remain financially solvent.

Health and safety issues are of vital importance, and serious damage can result when an institution ignores real problems or handles them poorly. Sloppy laboratory practices can endanger researchers, students, and staff members, some of whom may decide to take matters into their own hands by "going public." Poor communication with the local community and insensitivity to its concerns can polarize campus-town relations and result in citizensí overreacting to innocuous situations.

Besides communication with the public, potential conflicts of interest, organizational clout for safety officials, and documentation of potential hazards are areas institutions should scrutinize more closely, primarily to insure safety but also to prevent unnecessary problems, adverse publicity, and costly litigation.

One of the most important issues is a conflict inherent in the organizational structure of many institutions, where the people responsible for health and safety report to the very departments they are supposed to monitor, such as physical-plant departments. For example, safety officials spend a good deal of their time inspecting existing buildings and new construction for fire hazards and building-code violations, and their findings often require modifications that take time and cost money. However, physical-plant departments, which are evaluated in part on how efficiently and inexpensively they construct and maintain buildings, tend to resist making recommended changes.

The conflict is compounded when expensive after-the-fact modifications are necessary to bring a completed structure up to building-code standards, especially when the safety department identified the violations in the blueprint stage and was ignored. One drawback when safety officials report to the physical-plant department is obvious: It creates an adversarial rather than cooperative atmosphere. More important. however, is the fact that if cost and time considerations are allowed to override health and safety recommendations, potential hazards can become real. On issues of urgent importance, the officials responsible for a campusís health and safety arrangements should have access to the president or chancellor.

Lack of organizational clout also can be a serious problem for health and safety officials because many of them repeatedly find themselves in the untenable position of identifying hazardous conditions without having the authority to take corrective measures. They have the responsibility to inspect facilities and review construction; they should also have the power to shut down unsafe laboratories and buildings. To deny them that power is to tie their hands.

Institutions must articulate clear rules governing the modification of construction and the closing of facilities, provide for appeals, and then give health and safety officials the authority to carry out the rules. Institutions need to develop a consensus about the objectives of their health and safety programs, be clear about what they want the safety-department staff members to do within that framework, and allow department officials to participate in the decision-making process. University administrators should let the safety department know whether its recommendations on particular issues will be adopted--and if not, why not -- and what priority specific problems will receive. A cohesive and participatory policy will result in a system of shared values concerning health and safety: that consensus will benefit the safety department and the entire campus.

Health-and-safety professionals are hired to identify, document, and respond to potential hazards, but cataloguing that information can present difficulties. Some institutions keep records in a haphazard fashion; others have sophisticated data-base systems that include a complete record of all potential hazards, the type of problem, frequency of occurrence, location, victims, if any, and the people responsible for correcting the situation.

Such a data base can be an extraordinary resource for administrators who must establish priorities and prepare cost and time estimates, to tackle difficult systemic problems. However, there is also a down side. Not only can such a system document in excruciating detail the safety problems the institution has not addressed, because of cost or other reasons, it can also be transformed by an outside monitoring agency from a voluntary to a mandatory system, accompanied by a stream of violation notices about unattended-to potential problems. Internally, such a data base makes it easy for disgruntled employees to leak information about any problem they believe the institution is not handling properly. Such leaks can severely distort institutional plans and priorities by forcing administrators to deal prematurely with specific problems rather than address them as part of a long-term corrective effort.

Another drawback to keeping computer records of health and safety hazards is the problem with any data base, garbage in, garbage out. Staff members will differ in their interpretation of building and safety codes, in their areas of concern, and in their conscientiousness in entering information about identified hazards in the data base. They also will differ in their diligence in recording corrective action. These variables can make computerized information exceedingly misleading, if not potentially dangerous.

UNIVERSITIES HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY to share information with the public, especially when such information could directly affect the well-being of the local community. Disregarding that responsibility can lead to public resentment, protests, and legal action. Universities must respect the public's need to know, by listening and responding to citizens' questions and complaints. University officials, for example, must be careful to explain clearly the restrictions governing research using animals and also to point out the benefits that derive from such research.

Although honest and direct communication between the university and the public is necessary, unauthorized leaks of information by individual faculty or staff members who may not see all aspects of a specific incident, or know about the administration's plan to respond to it, can distort the communityís understanding of a situation. For the good of both sides, the institution should establish a plan for informing the public about health and safety matters and see that it is followed.

A breakdown in any one of the areas I have outlined can result in an escalation of the problem at hand. Feelings of frustration and powerlessness, for example, can turn an otherwise exemplary employee into a whistle blower, possibly involving the institution in a lengthy and costly court battle. Once problems become public, news coverage often spoils the chances for a productive exchange of ideas (although some times it also forces an institution to revolve basic problems).

Universities have made much progress in their efforts to grapple with campus health and safety issues -- but many problems remain, and new ones arise daily. Each crisis, large or small, contains many lessons for alert administrators. Failure to learn from past incidents will harm individuals and institutions. By taking active steps to avert future problems, universities can continue their pursuit of knowledge without losing control of potentially hazardous situations.

-- David M.Fetterman is a management consultant. He is at Stanford University and a professor at Sierra Nevada College. He conducted a special review of health and safety issues at Stanford in 1988.