Meet our local VIB safety coordinators

22 September 2015

​Does your department pay a lot of attention to safety?

Françoise: Of course, as in any self-respecting laboratory!

Samuël: Yes. Safety is obviously important for yourself, but it is equally important towards your colleagues. We must remind ourselves of it every day, because as soon as a routine becomes entrenched, you’re likely to become careless with regard to procedures and products. We are working on this within our department by carrying out small checks at regular intervals. This way people are reminded every once in a while of how to work safely and properly.

          "If a student who was not properly trained himself ends    
          up training others, problems will arise."

                Christa Verplancke

Annemie: Of course, safety is an issue that requires attention, but the employees themselves also bear a certain responsibility. We work with one or more safety (SHE) responsibles in every lab. Experienced technicians to whom questions can be addressed and who will notice or point out safety-related issues if they see any. In addition, we ensure employee awareness and provide information about ‘good practices’. Safety should be a major focus for everyone.

Christa: Everyone agrees on the importance of safety, but the extent to which people know the rules depends on their jobs and/or backgrounds. Lab managers and technicians tend to put a premium on safety; they are in the lab every day and are only too aware of everything that could go wrong. For some foreigners, the amount of legislation governing Belgian labs can be bewildering. A lot depends on how well supervisors are able to convey safety information. If a student who was not properly trained himself ends up training others down the track, problems will arise. This is definitely an area of concern.

How do you go about making newcomers safety conscious?

Françoise: Newcomers are assigned mentors who are to closely supervise them and help them conduct their first experiments. 

          "Newcomers are given the first part of our lab guidebook,
          which contains numerous safety instructions."

                Françoise Dumortier

While doing so, they point out the risks associated with certain products and procedures. In addition, newcomers are given the first part of our lab guidebook, which contains numerous safety instructions (about sorting chemical waste, among other things) and which they have to go through with their mentors.

Samuël: We currently have a welcome brochure for newcomers that contains several guidelines, including safety guidelines and waste removal guidelines. In addition to this brochure, lab workers receive information from their coworkers and are assigned a mentor. They are also given a quick tour of the place so that they know whom to turn to if they have any questions.

Annemie: All new employees receive the VIB safety brochure and a personal welcome by their own SHE responsible. To this end, we have drawn up a checklist outlining useful information for
new employees, from the locations of the emergency exits to laboratory-specific good practices. SHE responsibles could be considered as a “mentor”. In addition, employees can attend general SHE training courses organized by KU Leuven.

Christa: Everyone we hire receives 3 brochures: VIB’s Safety@work, UGent’s Wellness and Environmental, Health and Safety Guidelines and our department’s Domestic Rules. We know that hardly anyone reads all these documents back to front, which is why I give a monthly GLP presentation about key subjects with regard to safety and waste treatment. Attendance is mandatory for all new employees in the wet lab. In addition, the lab manager gives new employees a tour of the lab to give them a rough idea of where things are located and how our department is run.

Can you provide any examples of initiatives that improved your safety policy?

Françoise: Certain aspects (e.g. turning off gas faucets after use; making sure that the lab is properly locked at night) are repeated again and again during our weekly lab meetings. We have also appointed officers who are responsible for specific safety aspects. They can be addressed in the event of questions and keep an eye on things such as chemical waste sorting, biological waste, etc.

Samuël: Working with cells and viruses requires caution. We can no longer allow just about anyone to enter a containment level-2 lab. This is why we re-evaluate anyone with access to a level-2 lab and draw up documents stating that the bearers have received training, what exactly their work at the level-2 lab entails and how long they will be working on their projects. This system allows us to check whether people should be granted access or not, and whether those who work in the lab have received the appropriate level of training.

          "It is crucial that our lab workers and the biosafety   
          coordinator communicate properly."

                Annemie Puttemans

Annemie: The SHE-themed welcome and the SHE responsibles are absolutely indispensable because they work in a targeted manner, notice issues quickly and are also able to act quickly. Our departmental newsletter regularly features SHErelated topics, e.g. what to do with different types of waste. Last year René Custers taught our SHE responsibles how to deal with a hazardous biological spill, and a video was made that is now permanently available. A researcher recently questioned a certain procedure regarding a device, and we rectified the issue. It is crucial that our lab workers and the biosafety coordinator communicate properly.

Christa: Our preventive measures to prevent maize pollen allergies. It took us a long time to find suitable clothing and respiratory protection equipment. If used correctly, this equipment will stop our employees from developing grass pollen allergies. Procurement of a full ensemble of personal protective equipment which will allow us to work safely with chainsaws to harvest our poplars. The ensemble comprises a helmet with integrated goggles and ear protection, a protective jacket and matching pants, safety shoes and gloves.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges in terms of safety?

Françoise: Teaching employees good habits. We often have to point out the same careless behaviors. New employees tend to pay more attention to order and safety than their coworkers (or even supervisors!) who have been here for years.

          "We have not had any serious incidents and we would like 
           to keep it that way."

                Samuël Sluijs

Samuël: As far as safety is concerned, a lot of time and effort have been expended on the Department of Molecular Genetics. So far we have not had any serious incidents, and we would like to keep it that way. We are doing our utmost to strictly comply with the relevant safety regulations, in conjunction with the Prevention Service.

Annemie: Applying ever-increasing regulations to practical operations on the work floor. Communication and information are the key words, while accountability and explaining why things are done the way they are remain a bit of a challenge. It is not always easy to determine good practices in a world which is drowning in rules and information. We are trying to remedy this last point by ensuring that employees know whom to turn to if they have any questions.

Christa: Convince everyone that safety matters, and that safety and accident prevention regulations were not drawn up to make people’s lives more complicated, but rather to make sure that people can work in a safer, more pleasant and more ergonomic environment and that they are insured in the event that something does happen. For a department like ours with a high turnover rate, it remains a challenge to ensure that everyone is and remains properly informed.


Françoise Dumortier (VIB Department of Molecular Microbiology, KU Leuven)


Samuël Sluijs (VIB Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Antwerp)

Annemie Puttemans (VIB Center for the Biology of Disease, KU Leuven)


Christa Verplancke (VIB Plant Systems Biology Department, UGent)