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From the Director: Safety and Security Briefing

(Photo - Persis Drell)
(Photo by Linda Cicero.)

I would like to start by congratulating you—the laboratory staff. Together we have made major strides forward in both safety and security. I want to congratulate each one of you for contributing to our progress.

We have just completed the safest year as a laboratory since we have been keeping records. While we had only four accidents where someone had to miss a day of work due to an injury, I think we will all agree that any accident is one too many.

I believe the improvements in the safety culture at our lab come from:

  • Better understanding of roles and responsibilities in the lab
  • Better work planning and control processes and the growth of a culture of "plan it right or don't do it" at the lab
  • Our shared commitment to having the same high standards for safety performance as we have for our science. It isn't safety or science. It's safety and science.

However, I believe we can and must do better.

We had two incidents in the past six months that are clear pointers to where we have work to do. On April 3, a graduate student user at SSRL had a glass sample holder explode when he removed it from a liquid nitrogen dewar, peppering his face with glass. On September 24, a Stanford graduate student got a small burn to his retina in the periphery of his vision while aligning a laser.

The two incidents have startling similarities:

  • Both incidents involved graduate students—one local and one a user.
  • Both involved a lack of clarity in the lines of responsibility and accountability for the students involved.
  • Both involved a decision not to use Personal Protective Equipment (face shield/eye protection) in violation of posted rules, training and common sense.
  • Both involved not stopping to think about the hazards of the work in cases where something new or unfamiliar was being done.

We have also had our most secure year in recent history. There were no burglaries and we had about half the normal incidents of theft or loss of property. However, we had a very serious vandalism incident at SSRL this summer. This was an event unique in my scientific career and I hope I never see another one like it. Such wanton destruction of scientific research is very very unusual and very hard to guard against. Given the mindset of the vandal, that event would have been very hard to prevent.

Still, in investigating that incident and other security incidents this year we uncovered gaps that we need to address. We found too many examples where known policies or procedures were simply not followed. For example, the vandal got into the lab by tailgating through a security gate. Tthat is against lab policy, and yet it happens. We found gaps in our processes to collect the vandal's badge and key and notify security when her employment terminated.

In another security incident unrelated to the vandal, we had a policy where user computer accounts were supposed to be deactivated for users no longer at the lab that we didn't follow.

These gaps in our security posture and the root causes of the two safety incidents are, I believe, related. Both reflect a lack of discipline in our "conduct of operations." By that I mean that we have policies and procedures and we don't always follow them. We have sub-cultures at the lab that believe it is OK to not follow the rules. I believe that improving the discipline on our conduct of operations is the next big challenge we face if we want to improve, as these recent incidents illustrate we must, the safety and security at our lab.

There are several aspects to making progress here. It will not be easy, but I know we can do it.

  • We have to make sure that SLAC policies and procedures are sound. I can tell you from personal experience I know we have policies that need to be reviewed.
  • We have to abide by the procedures we have in place. It is unacceptable to unilaterally decide that a procedure may apply to everyone else but it doesn't apply to you!
  • Most important, perhaps: we have to have the discipline to work to fix policies and procedures that need to be fixed through the system. It is not acceptable to simply say “the policy or procedure doesn't make sense so I'm not going to follow it.” It is unacceptable to say “PPE may be required for this procedure but it is uncomfortable or clumsy so I'm going to take it off.” Unfortunately we have too many examples of those behaviors which contributes to the culture that it is OK to not follow the rules. Accidents and security incidents are the result.

How do I know we can successfully attack this problem? Because we have areas of the lab where the discipline of operations is just world class. Our accelerator operations provide one example and the success of LCLS, now operating for first users, or SSRL, operating with 99% efficiency, owes everything to the discipline that is ingrained in our accelerator operations.

I need every one of you to help. Know the policies and procedures that apply to your work. Ask you supervisor if you have any questions about what applies. Follow these procedures and policies. If they are making your work difficult, then speak to your manager, the department head or functional lead and work with them to make the policies and procedures better. Don't just blow them off! Where policies and procedures don't seem to exist and it's just word of mouth (we have a lot of that) alert the relevant manager and work with them or the subcouncil to get policies in place.

From the management end we will be working to make the revision process more streamlined. We want and need to know where policies/procedures don't make sense. We can't fix what we don't know about!

This will take time and effort but the results will be worth it. I'm getting some help on this. As part of our response to the laser accident, we are bringing in a team of external experts to advise us and part of their charge will be to help us assess this problem of operational discipline because I believe it is emerging as a root cause for our recent safety and security challenges. I look forward to their recommendations and I look forward to working with all of you as we face this challenge.

I am very proud of the progress we have made. I am, quite frankly, excited by the challenge to make our work more productive while making it safer are more secure. I know we will succeed!

—Persis Drell
SLAC Today, October 30, 2009