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Office marks 50 years as Institute's safety watchdog

MIT created its Safety Office before anyone dreamed of OSHA, the EPA, DEP, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or the Americans With Disabilities Act. This year, the office is celebrating its 50th anniversary as it continues to oversee issues ranging from eye protection to hack removal.

The Institute hired a safety engineer in 1949, partly as a response to a series of serious eye injuries and a fire in a lab-supply stockroom that had led to a sharp increase in insurance rates. Prior to that, a committee was in charge of safety. The first director, Mark Dondero, stayed on the job for 25 years.

The office now has 12 full-time employees and a broad range of responsibilities, including fire safety, eye and foot protection, construction safety, establishing emergency procedures and training requirements, public safety at events, interpretation of codes and regulations, chemical and laboratory safety, machine shop safety, ergonomic evaluations (in conjunction with the Safety Office's sister organization, Environmental Medical Services), and overseeing hazardous material storage and waste disposal, among other environmental concerns.

"We consider ourselves generalists first to meet the broad spectrum needs of the Institute, and specialists second," said Safety Office Director Jerry Diaz. "In addition, many of us became specialists in other areas out of necessity."

All MIT safety officers must have fulfilled educational and experience requirements and taken two national board examinations on safety practices and regulations. Over the years, the Safety Office has received awards from several associations, including the Campus Safety Association and the local chapter of the National Safety Council.

Wide-ranging duties

On a typical Safety Office day, one might see a graduate student getting some help finding a material safety data sheet for a hazardous material, or a safety officer reviewing architectural or engineering drawings for a building renovation. Another officer might be discussing a safety concern with an employee or counseling an employee on a workers' compensation claim. Yet another might be evaluating a request to remove a hack from one of the domes.

In the office, they also handle calls to and from the DEP, EPA, building inspector, insurance carrier or fire department. Other field work includes visiting labs, dormitories and other sites; conducting inspections and assessments; witnessing emergency system tests; and responding to explosions, fires and environmental spills.

Clearly, approaches to safety, health and the environment have changed since the office was created in 1949 to monitor insurance rates. However, several key elements endure.

"We place the safety of people above everything else, and people still make mistakes and have accidents," said Mr. Diaz, who has headed the office since 1996. "Priorities go to life and public safety, accident and injury prevention, regulatory compliance, property protection, and then insurance and liability concerns. The simplicity of this approach has helped to keep our focus crystal clear -- people are always first."

Mr. Diaz believes the next 50 years will be as exciting and challenging as the past 50.

"When I first arrived 18 years ago, I couldn't imagine a better place to learn and apply safety science and art to than MIT," said Mr. Diaz, who served as a Navy hospital corpsman for eight years, including a tour with the Marines in Vietnam. He is also a former Plymouth firefighter and EMT.

"I still feel the same way today. MIT has just about everything one could imagine, particularly when we include our off-campus sites. We've reviewed everything from airplane hangars, radar towers, diving programs, fall protection on ships' masts, lightning protection and life safety systems of a mansion, in addition to all the exciting things happening in the laboratories and machine shops, from atomic accelerators to zoological studies and everything in between.

"Most of the MIT community is very receptive to safety and overall are compliant once there is an understanding of why it makes sense to do something a certain way."

Mr. Diaz, who has degrees in fire science, management and nursing, came to MIT in 1981 to develop the Emergency Action Plan. He became safety manager of Lincoln Laboratory in 1995 when William MacLachlan retired, and returned to campus a year later to succeed John Fresina as MIT's third safety director.

Early safety programs

MIT's first safety director was initially called a safety engineer. Mr. Dondero, who had an extensive background in industrial and civil engineering, focused on lowering insurance rates and reported to the Treasurer's Office. The first two programs he established involved eye safety and foot protection.

As facilities and research volume expanded, the Safety Office's responsibilities grew. Mr. Fresina, a chemist, joined the office in 1959 and helped develop programs in radiation protection and industrial hygiene. He served as director from 1974-96.

Mr. Fresina has a slew of memories of his 37-year tenure, including pawing through a dump-ster with Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp in search of chemicals mistakenly picked up by a custodian, and rowing under the boathouse ramp with his 11-year-old son Michael while investigating a frozen fire main.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were also a time of antiwar activities and calls from Campus Police to retrieve chemicals from dormitory corridors and stairwells that often coincidentally were the same ones used to make hallucinogens. "The air in the Student Center was rife with the odor of marijuana smoke," Mr. Fresina said.

During one protest, tear gas was lobbed into Kresge Auditorium. "We had to call in Steve Piccolo from [the Industrial Hygiene Office] to neutralize the gas," Mr. Fresina said.

As the result of an explosion at the MIT-Harvard electron accelerator in 1965, Mr. Fresina said three important MIT safety policies were established: an on-call program was created in the Safety Office, construction of hydrogen bubble chambers was confined to the Brookhaven National Laboratories, and safety procedures for students under 21 were introduced.

Historical highlights

Mr. Fresina also remembers:
  • Maude Agnault of MIT Tech Talk scooping Boston newspapers in reporting that a commercial plane flying out of Logan lost a jet engine, and parts of the engine's rotor and stator blades fell onto the MIT campus.
  • Discovering mustard gas in Building 4 that was left over from World War I experiments, and (in the 1970s) an abandoned underground tank containing jet fuel left over from World War II research in Building 31.
  • The largest crane in New England being blown over backwards in high winds during the construction of Building E55, crushing 12-15 automobiles in the Faculty Club parking lot.
More recently, Assistant Safety Officer Suzanne Adams had to figure out how to make an art-project wheat field inside Lobby 7 fire-retardant. She also reviewed safety aspects of the area around the movie set for Blown Away. Mr. Diaz showed MIT nurses how to handle a patient on fire in 1988 by using a blanket to extinguish the flames that were lit on his own body at Lincoln Laboratory's flight facility. And the office handled several "bomb calls" that involved naval ordnance discovered in and around Building 20. The army sent up an Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team and Cambridge Police sent a bomb expert. It turned out that the devices had been used by the late Professor Harold "Doc" Edgerton as ballast and were not explosives. The army confiscated them anyway, even though the words "Doc Edgerton" were printed on the side of one.

MIT had its first OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) inspection after a graduate student was electrocuted in 1972. The Institute was fined about $2,000 and spent about $500,000 in work required to achieve compliance.

Following the inspection, Mr. MacLachlan and Don Batson were hired in 1973 to oversee key operations. Mr. MacLachlan, who had a background in electronics and had spent 10 years at Draper Laboratory, was put in charge of electrical safety. He was transferred to Lincoln Laboratory as the safety manager in 1982 and retired in 1995. Prior to his appointment, Lincoln Laboratory safety was covered by the campus Safety Office with rotating safety officers.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 1999.

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