My January 2015 LA Times Op Ed on human error

January 9, 2015 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner | No Comments


Ebola lapses show lab safety protocols should factor in human error

Christmas Eve brought the unwelcome news that a lab worker at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. It was the latest in a series of similar lapses. Citing such problems, the Obama administration in October suspended some government-funded research projects involving genetic modification of viruses that have the potential to set off a worldwide epidemic. The lapses reported so far have not involved serious injuries or fatalities. But is the lack of serious harm evidence that current safety measures are effective, or are the lapses early warning signs of systemic problems?

The recent Ebola exposure at the CDC occurred just four days after a symposium on lab safety at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. A broad cross section of experts, including me, assembled to ponder such questions, to debate the risks and benefits of the suspended research and to begin to discuss how to implement and enforce risk assessments of laboratory processes.

On one side of the debate were virologists, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students for whom the research moratorium represented a threat to their professional careers. They advocated for the public health benefits of their work and warned of the risk to America’s scientific leadership posed by the moratorium. On the other side sat bioethicists, public health experts and a nervous public, all expressing concern about safety and bioterrorism.

Everyone debated: Can scientists safely genetically modify and propagate some of the most dangerous viruses on the planet? My role as a scientist involved in human behavior and safety-related decision-making was not to take sides on the issue but to talk about the human factor in safety precautions and lapses. In other words, to help figure out how to complete a risk assessment that is robust enough to protect the health and safety of the general public given the truism that “to err is human.”


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Category : Approved-Post

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