Saturday, May 8, 2010

PI Precautions

This post continues the discussion about what a PI is obligated to do in the event her technician asks to be excused from working after hours.  See previous two posts for background.  In this post, I suggest some basic precautions that the PI should have taken. 

1. Job description. It is always a good idea to spell out in writing (even if your institution doesn’t require it) what the official duties are for each position in the lab and specifically what this work entails—working long hours, travel involving overnight stays, exposure to bad weather or hazardous conditions, etc. These specifics should be part of any job description and explained verbally to job candidates. To be doubly sure, a PI can request the new employee’s signature (or email response) on the job description, acknowledging that they understand the duties and have agreed to them. This precaution will avoid future disagreements over who said what and when.

2. Other staff. Applying policies unequally among staff is a good way to create a disgruntled lab group, or even stimulate an employment discrimination suit. The solution here is simple:  apply all policies equally.   This means that if a PI excuses one technician from working after hours, then the option must be extended to all of them. If research depends on staff being able to work after hours, then the PI would want to avoid having to offer this option. If this expectation is made clear to job applicants and expressly stated in the duties, then there will be less likelihood that employees will ask to be excused.

3. Safety. First, the PI must ensure that her lab and staff are meeting basic safety and OSHA regulations. This is to protect them and the PI (in the event of an incident).

a. At a minimum, the PI should have protocols in place for dealing with likely emergencies (chemical spills, fire, etc.)—and these protocols should be in writing (preferably in a binder readily accessible in the lab).

b. There should be emergency numbers posted prominently.

c. Standard safety equipment (coats, goggles, masks, eyewash station, etc.) should be available and in working order.

d. MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) should be available for all chemicals in the lab and compiled in a single place—for easy access.

e. I would also suggest holding regular lab group meetings to go over safety protocols (minimum once per year or whenever there is a large turnover of staff)—and document that you held this meeting.

f. If your staff does fieldwork, there should be a standard protocol such as filing a “float plan”, holding a “tailgate safety meeting” prior to departure, having emergency phone numbers in hand, cell phone or satellite phone, first aid kits, etc.

g. It’s a good idea for all staff to have taken first aid and CPR training. My agency requires it and annual refreshers. Many institutions arrange for such training through the Red Cross.

h. If your group handles especially hazardous materials or operates special machinery or vehicles, ensure that all have received official training and adhere to regulations.

If the PI has done all the above, then in the event of an incident, there will be less chance that the PI will be blamed for negligence. It’s not a guarantee, of course, but failure to have done these things can be used against the PI in the event of litigation. It is unwise to assume that an accident is unlikely or that a subordinate (or their family) is unlikely to sue in the event of injury or death. A PI must assume that accidents will happen no matter how benign the setting or how careful the staff.

In terms of building security, a PI cannot usually afford to install surveillance cameras or alarms, hire security guards, or implement elaborate building access restrictions. However, these are all suggestions that can be made to the institution—and the PI should be sure to document that she made these suggestions and what their response was.

All of the above suggestions are what should be done prior to being faced with the hypothetical issue of the fearful employee. But they don’t really provide a solution to this case. The next post provides a more specific solution.

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