Recently, The University of Texas School of Public Health (UTSPH) Alumnist and current director of Environmental Health and Safety for The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), Dr. Scott Patlovich’s doctoral dissertation article was featured on the cover of Applied Biosafety, the peer-reviewed professional journal of the American Biological Safety Association ABSA.
Dr. Patlovich worked with his advisor Robert Emery, Dr.P.H., professor of occupational health and UTHealth vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management to investigate the safety deficits that put biosafety professionals working out in the field at an increased risk for injury, illness or even death.
The inspiration for the study came from his experience as a safety manager for the National University of Singapore, where he observed the inadequacies of established safety protocols that were being utilized by researchers collecting infectious disease agents outside the laboratory environment.
As Dr. Patlovich explains in a University press release about the study, “Clearly there were a lot of issues related to field work that we weren’t considering. And I knew we weren’t the only ones. Other institutions have similar challenges assessing field safety, and many biosafety professionals are asked to review protocols involving areas of safety in which we aren’t traditionally trained.”
To conduct the investigation Dr. Patlovich, developed a web-based survey composed of 33 questions that was then distributed to current biological safety professionals to be completed throughout the month of July 2013. The questions were created to assess the number of programs, as well as the extent to which these biological safety programs consider and evaluate field collection activities. Examples include:
- What kinds of techniques did they use in the field to promote safety?
- Did they feel they were properly trained to recommend appropriate controls in the field?
- Did they have adequate resources or documents to guide them?
There were 1,451 surveys sent out with 155 completed and returned to Dr. Patlovich for analysis, with the following results:
- 61% of the survey respondents indicated that research involving the field collection of biological specimens is conducted at their institution of employment, with the majority of these field collection activities occurring at academic institutions.
- 73% of respondents indicated they have assigned an institutional oversight committee, such as a Field Research Safety Committee, to review such protocols, with only 25% of these committees generating a field research-specific risk assessment form to facilitate the assembly of pertinent information necessary for a project risk assessment review.
- The majority of respondents indicated that most biosafety professionals have not been formally trained on the topic of field research safety
- The majority of respondents stated that training on field research safety issues would be helpful, and that they would consider participation in such a training course.
These findings highlight the apparent safety shortcomings that most certainly have the potential to put biosafety field researchers in harm’s way. In Dr. Patlvich’s opinion “Right now, the toolbox biosafety professionals have for dealing with field safety doesn’t have all the right tools. There’s definitely room for improvement.”
In an effort to create a more effective toolbox, Dr. Patlovich is partnering with ABSA to develop a field-safety curriculum that will be available to biosafety professionals in the near future.