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GAO: Bio lab safety reporting system requires many choices

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A national safety reporting system for federally-funded biological laboratories, were it to come into existence, would have to balance between many competing drivers, finds a Government Accountability Office report.

For example, the report, dated Sept. 10 but not released publically until Oct. 12, says a web-based safety reporting system would increase the ease of submitting reports, but workers might resist using it for fear that the reports would be traced back to them.

Since effective safety reporting requires voluntary worker participation, some degree of identity protection is necessary to overcome other fears of appearing incompetent or possibly opening oneself up to litigation. Complete anonymity is the surest method to protect identities, but it also limits the ability of laboratories to obtain clarification of the incident--and in any case, anonymous data sets tend to be less detailed than identified data sets, the report notes.

An alternative to complete anonymity is confidentiality, which the GAO suggests is a better choice. But, confidentiality must come buttressed by strong assurances that it will be respected, the report adds.

That doesn't mean a web-based reporting system should be the only method for reporting a safety incident, the GAO states. An ideal national safety reporting system would also include a mail-in option.

The ideal reporting system would also allow reporters to describe events in unstructured text, the GAO says. Though structured reporting forms make quantitative analysis easier, the classification terms to capture all incidents might not exist.

Moreover, a traditional hierarchical method of safety incident reporting, in which each management layer filters information "may limit the amount of useful safety data that can be received," the report adds.

Another binary choice developers of the still-hypothetical national system would have to surmount is whether to manage the safety reporting system internally or have an external entity manage it. Analysis of safety reports should be done by qualified biosafety professionals, the GAO says, but internal management might raise a conflict of interest. So, both internal and external options might be necessary, at least at first, the report concludes.

U.S. biological labs aren't entirely bereft of safety reporting today, but incidents of laboratory-acquired infections are commonly known to be under-reported and in any case LAI reports don't encompass all the data a safety reporting system would, since lab workers are often unaware an agent release has occurred until they fall sick. Labs with select agents or toxins must file reports when they're stolen, lost or released, but there have been lapses in filing those reports and moreover, only a fraction of biology labs contain those substances, the GAO report says.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-10-850  (.pdf)

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