3 Questions: Tolga Durak on building a safety culture at MIT

MIT News Office

3 Questions: Tolga Durak on building a safety culture at MIT

Managing director of environment, health, and safety programs discusses MIT's resources for helping researchers and students operate safely in the lab.

              Tolga Durak is the managing director of MIT EHS.
              Photo courtesy of Tolga Durak
Photo courtesy of Tolga Durak

Environment, Health, and Safety Managing Director Tolga Durak heads a team working to build a strong safety culture at the Institute and to implement systems that lead to successful lab and makerspace operations. EHS is also pursuing new opportunities in the areas of safe and sustainable labs and applied makerspace research. 

Durak holds a BS in mechanical engineering, a MS in industrial and systems engineering, and a PhD in building construction/environmental design and planning. He has over 20 years of experience in engineering and EHS in higher education, having served in such roles as authority having jurisdiction, responsible official, fire marshal, risk manager, radiation safety officer, laser safety officer, safety engineer, project manager, and emergency manager for government agencies, as well as universities with extensive health-care and research facilities.

Q: What “words of wisdom” regarding lab/shop health and safety would you like to share with the research community? 

A: EHS staff always strive to help maintain the safety and well-being of the MIT community. When it comes to lab/shop safety or any areas with hazards, first and foremost, we encourage wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling potentially hazardous materials. While PPE needs depend on the hazards and the space, common PPE includes safety glasses, lab coats, gloves, clothes that cover your skin, and closed-toe shoes. Shorts and open-toe shoes have no place in the lab/shop setting when hazardous materials are stored or used. Accidents will and do happen. The severity of injuries due to accidental exposures can be minimized when researchers are wearing PPE. Remember, there is only one you!   

Overall, be aware of your surroundings, be knowledgeable about the hazards of the materials and equipment you are using, and be prepared for the unexpected. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen during this experiment or procedure?” Prepare by doing a thorough risk assessment, ask others who may be knowledgeable for their ideas and help, and standardize procedures where possible. Be prepared to respond appropriately when an emergency arises. 

Safety in our classrooms, labs, and makerspaces is paramount and requires a collaborative effort. 

Q: What are the established programs within EHS that students and researchers should be aware of, and what opportunities and challenges do you face trying to advance a healthy safety culture at MIT? 

A: The EHS program staff in Biosafety, Industrial Hygiene, Environmental Management, Occupational and Construction Safety, and Radiation Protection are ready to assist with risk assessments, chemical safety, physical hazards, hazard-specific training, materials management, and hazardous waste disposal and reuse/recycling. Locally, each department, laboratory, and center has an EHS coordinator, as well as an assigned EHS team, to assist in the implementation of required EHS programs. Each lab/shop also has a designated EHS representative — someone who has local knowledge of your lab/shop and can help you with safety requirements specific to your work area.  

One of the biggest challenges we face is that due to the decentralized nature of the Institute, no one size fits all when it comes to implementing successful safety practices. We also view this as an opportunity to enhance our safety culture. A strong safety culture is reflected at MIT when all lab and makerspace members are willing to look out for each other, challenge the status quo when necessary, and do the right thing even when no one is looking. In labs/shops with a strong safety culture, faculty and researchers discuss safety topics at group meetings, group members remind each other to wear the appropriate PPE (lab coats, safety glasses, etc.), more experienced team members mentor the newcomers, and riskier operations are reviewed and assessed to make them as safe as possible.  

Q: Can you describe the new Safe and Sustainable Laboratories (S2L) efforts and the makerspace operational research programs envisioned for the future? 

A: The MIT EHS Office has a plan for renewing its dedication to sustainability and climate action. We are dedicated to doing our part to promote a research environment that assures the highest level of health and safety but also strives to reduce energy, water, and waste through educating and supporting faculty, students, and researchers. With the goal of integrating sustainability across the lab sector of campus and bridging that with the Institute’s climate action goals, EHS has partnered with the MIT Office of Sustainability, Department of Facilities, vice president for finance, and vice president for campus services and stewardship to relaunch the “green” labs sustainability efforts under a new Safe and Sustainable Labs program.

Part of that plan is to implement a Sustainable Labs Certification program. The process is designed to be as easy as possible for the lab groups. We are starting with simple actions like promoting the use of equipment timers in certain locations to conserve energy, fume hood/ventilation management, preventative maintenance for ultra-low-temperature freezers, increasing recycling, and helping labs update their central chemical inventory system, which can help forecast MIT’s potential waste streams. 

EHS has also partnered with Project Manus to build a test-bed lab to study potential health and environmental exposures present in makerspaces as a result of specialized equipment and processes with our new Applied Makerspace Research Initiative.  

This article was republished with permission from the MIT News Office.