Q&A with Julie Zobel, Director of Laboratory Safety

Posted: April 29, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

Julie Zobel
Julie Zobel
Courtesy Julie Zobel

Although this is a new appointment for you, you were already employed at the university. What expertise do you bring to your new position?

I was named director of laboratory safety on Feb. 25, and I’ve been employed at Mason for almost four years as a laboratory safety specialist in the University Safety Office. My educational background includes a master’s degree in environmental engineering and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and environmental and hazardous materials management. I am a certified hazardous materials manager and have completed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training. I also have received training in the areas of biosafety and radiation safety.

How is the Office of Laboratory Safety (OLS) organized, and what responsibilities do you oversee?

The Office of Laboratory Safety is a somewhat new office at Mason, and I directly report to Chris Hill, vice provost for research. In addition, I continue to work closely with the University Safety Office and Mason’s chief safety officer, Keith Bushey, as well as with Larry Czarda, vice president, Prince William Campus, and his administrative staff. The goals and responsibilities of OLS are well-supported by the university, and we are fortunate to have three new positions: a chemical hygiene officer, a biosafety officer, and a radiation safety officer. Additionally, I hired a full-time laboratory safety technician earlier this year, and several wage students currently work for OLS.

Operating safely and in compliance with federal, state, local, and institutional regulations and guidelines is the responsibility of everyone at Mason, However, OLS is responsible for providing services that promote appropriate environmental, health, and safety standards in all research and instructional laboratories at Mason. This includes oversight of radiation safety, chemical safety, and biological materials safety, as well as physical, mechanical, and thermal hazards. We achieve this through review and development of policies, guidelines, and/or procedures to ensure compliance with all federal, state, and local regulations; administration and oversight of various training programs; risk and hazard assessment; and review of specific laboratory protocols and procedures.

Federal regulations include OSHA’s Laboratory Standard, Hazard Communication Standard, and Bloodborne Pathogens Standard; radioactive materials guidelines issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories, which are biosafety guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In addition, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issues Regulated Medical Waste Regulations (for biological and infectious waste) and Hazardous Waste Management Regulations.

At the local level, all waste products that are discharged through sink drains must be in compliance with local wastewater treatment facility requirements, and the Chemical, Radiological, and Biological Hygiene Plan comprises university policies.

What are the challenges associated with a distributed university?There are wet labs–laboratories that sustain the use of chemical, biological, or radioactive materials–on the Fairfax and Prince William Campuses. Because I have been at Mason for almost four years, I don’t think that having responsibilities at two campuses is difficult. It requires planning and organization.

The challenges are presented when you get a call that someone needs equipment, supplies, or assistance immediately. In the past, our response may not have been as quick as we would have liked if our staff members were not at the campus where the call came from. However, this challenge will be less likely to occur once the three new positions are filled, which will allow us to provide much better coverage at the Fairfax and Prince William Campuses.

What additional demands are being placed on your office because of the growth of the university?

The opening of Bull Run Hall at the Prince William Campus will bring seven new laboratories online. At the Fairfax Campus, new laboratories are proposed as part of the Krasnow Institute expansion, and research initiatives housed in King Hall and other buildings continue to increase.

There are more training programs to oversee, more researchers to receive training, and additional research protocols to review. Dissemination of information can be more difficult. New faculty members bring new ideas and new research projects. Often these projects have focuses in areas that are new for Mason, and this may broaden the scope of safety procedures or equipment that OLS is required to be familiar with or implement.

What are the different types of research currently under way at Mason? Does each type present a different set of challenges or require a different type of regulation?

There are many research projects at Mason that involve the use of chemicals and/or biological materials, and a few projects that require the use of radioactive materials. However, there are specific regulations in place for each type of material used in the laboratory, whether it is blood products, carcinogens, lasers, or radioactive materials. There also are different types of safety equipment used when dealing with chemicals versus biological or radioactive materials.

Preliminary planning has begun for a research facility near the Prince William Campus that will allow the National Center for Biodefense (NCBD) to pursue advanced biodefense research. This will take research at Mason to a new level. What will this mean to your office?

OLS has been included in many of the conversations about such a facility. Plans are in the preliminary stage, details have not yet been solidified, and it seems likely that the university will need to collaborate with outside partners to build this type of facility.

If the project is completed, OLS will have oversight of the activities in NCBD laboratories. This will increase the demand for OLS time and expertise, especially in the area of biosafety level (BSL)-3 facilities, practices, and procedures. Currently, Mason researchers do not engage in practices using BSL-3 microorganisms or procedures. However, we have many labs functioning at BSL-2.

BSL-2 laboratories accommodate the use of biological agents that have the potential to be infectious to humans, and a specific set of standard operating procedures that govern waste disposal, biosafety cabinet requirements, disinfectants, and training must be followed. BSL-3 laboratories also accommodate BSL-2 agents, but the difference is marked by the introduction of an inhalational hazard.

BSL requirements are set by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the determination of biosafety level requires that a risk assessment be done in consideration of the organisms and quantities of material involved, procedures to be performed, and facilities and equipment available.

The proposed NCBD facility will require OLS to integrate BSL-3 practices and procedures into many of our current safety programs.

Have you set any goals for your office, or do you plan to implement any changes?

We have many laboratory safety programs and policies at Mason that have not received adequate attention over the years. One of my first challenges is to rework and update the Chemical, Radiological, and Biological Hygiene Plan. I plan to revive some programs, such as the laboratory safety liaison program, that were in place at Mason in the past. This program asks deans, directors, and department chairs to identify a faculty member as the primary point of contact for safety matters in order to assist OLS in providing adequate services and to streamline communication. I also plan to rework some of the training programs we currently offer and develop additional training programs.

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