Job security

I would guess that most people view laboratory research as a reasonably safe job. It’s certainly not without hazards–toxic chemicals, fire and explosive risks, and in some cases, exposure to radiation or infectious diseases. For most of these, we take (or at least, are supposed to take) precautions to minimize these risks. We don personal protective equipment when working with chemicals and biohazards. We utilize shielding when working with radiation.

But how often do we consider security in our workplaces? Perhaps if you do animal (especially non-human primate) research, you might think of this more often than the average scientist, given the extreme tactics targeting scientists conducting animal research. And if you do stop to think about this, it might make you a little nervous, especially if you work in academia. Because at many academic institutions, security is lax at best and nonexistent at worst. At my graduate institute, you could walk into any research building, any lab, during “regular business hours” without being stopped. The only time security was tightened was when (a) PETA was planning protests or (b) POTUS was visiting the neighboring children’s hospital. At my current institute, you have to flash your ID or sign in at the main entrance, but generally, once you’re in, you can go just about anywhere you want. At both institutes, theoretically the only way to access the buildings after hours was/is through card access–but there’s usually at least one way in that isn’t locked.

Perhaps more disconcerting, though, is the failure of campus police and individual departments to alert students and staff to more generic security concerns. Recent events have reignited my furor about this. The space where I work is shared by about half a dozen labs. From what I’ve gathered, a postdoc in one of these other labs had a rather heated confrontation with hir adviser–so heated that the adviser terminated hir immediately, called in campus police, and had the postdoc’s access to the lab revoked. All this information came 24+ hours after the catalytic event. The rest of us had noticed that we now had to use swipe our IDs through the card reader to access the labs, but no one knew what was going on until comments and details filtered down from the lab in question. My issue here is this: If you feel threatened enough by an individual to have your lab space put on lockdown, don’t you think it might be a good idea to apprise those your lab shares space with? Because I know this postdoc. If s/he had approached while I was on my way in, I would have held the door for hir. It’s not like I’m letting a stranger into the lab.

And this highlights a broader problem with security at academic institutions, which is they like to keep all the dirty little secrets, the problems, the indiscretions quiet. They seem to prefer keeping their image clean over looking out for the safety of the people who work their. Perhaps this is an overly cynical view, but I have heard too many things, witnessed too many lapses to trust that this is a simple oversight. It is a calculated response by the institution and department, and one that has the potential to place students, trainees, and staff at risk–and that I fear already has. We are expected to take appropriate precautions in our research to minimize the risks of the hazards we face. So why aren’t institutions providing the information and the resources to minimize the security risks that are there?

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8 Responses to Job security

  1. Dr. O says:

    Agreed completely. The whole thing is especially scary in light of the Yale student murdered by a lab technician. Laboratory confrontations can have very real consequences if they’re not taken seriously – and shared with others.

  2. Lab Rat says:

    All the biology labs at our uni need cards to access them. There is a sort of low level paranoia about security; for example none of the stairways (and only one lift) lead to the animal testing floor, and all labs have two card-requiring doors between them and the outside world.

    Maybe security is more of a thing in the UK? Or maybe its just my university being paranoid.

  3. Spiny Norman says:

    My experience: in five consecutive institutions, in four different states, all lab doors have been left propped open all day unless no one is in the lab, and the building outside doors are left unlocked during business hours. You folks must be working in bad neighborhoods!

  4. biochembelle says:

    I have actually worked in a not-so-great neighborhood, where the doors were locked 24/7.

    For the most part, though, the neighborhoods I have/do work in aren’t that bad. Generally speaking, it may be difficult to strike a balance between security and openness, the latter of which is important in academia, and that balance will vary by institution and the potential risks there. What I consider inexcusable is when there are isolated and specific security concerns, but half the people working in the area are kept in the dark for the first 24 h. This is the second time at two different institutions that I’ve found myself in a such a situation.

  5. msphd says:

    My guess is that more people would be concerned about theft or vandalism by an ex-trainee than about physical violence (at least where I’ve worked). I’ve worked with PIs who would lock doors for that reason (and freezers, and relocate boxes to basements if it meant hiding them from trainees- past, current, and future). I’ve also heard stories about PIs who brought lawsuits against former trainees whom they accused of “stealing”.

    Then again, I’ve heard about PIs who have bullet-proof glass in their office windows because they were actually attacked by former trainees. But there again, only the PI was targeted. I guess we’ve all seen enough movies (or the most recent Grey’s Anatomy season finale, for example) to be worried that the violent person might walk in and start shooting everyone (didn’t that happen in Alabama not that long ago?).

  6. Lab Rat says:

    It’s not a bad neighbourhood at all, and this being the UK we’re less worried about someone walking in and shooting (I’d honestly never considered that something to worry about). It is mostly concerns about animal-rights activists or anti-science people, the last thing any university wants is “University of x site of PETA riots!” type publicity as it might scare people away from researching there.

  7. biochembelle says:

    msphd, you may have a point re: concerns about vandalism over violence. That being said, in the past year, I’ve heard way too many stories about trainees threatening and poisoning co-workers or advisers–not all from current institution I should say, still there’s enough to make one wonder what a truly disgruntled person might do if s/he suddenly found hirself kicked out.

    Lab Rat, there are certainly more general security risks to worry about, as we’ve both highlighted. I think in the US, there’s still this enchantment with open doors in academia. But given the escalating actions of animal rights activists (and other groups) in the past years, it raises the question of whether such open door policies should remain, but our culture is a reactionary one that doesn’t readily change in the absence of a catalyst.

  8. darchole says:

    Where I work the outside doors get locked during summer, but not during the semester. This only came about after a summer where about 10 laptops were stolen by what gossip had it was a gang. These people had no problem walking into occupied labs and stealing the laptops. Now we also get email updates if a ‘suspicious’ person is seen in the building – never mind that delivery people, company reps, and construction/repair workers are let in without any kind of verification. However when there was a malfunction with an autoclave that injured someone requring a hospital stay, there was no dept. wide email, just a note taped to the autoclave to not change the settings…

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