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Attitudes about health and safety among genetic engineering laboratory staff

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Version 1 2022-07-27, 03:15
posted on 2024-02-29, 01:52 authored by Alison Smith

Since the description of the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) molecule (Watson, 1968) and the discovery of its importance as the building block of genetic material, scientific researchers have been developing ways to alter DNA in humans, plants, animals and microorganisms. This alteration is commonly known as genetic engineering. 

The sciences of biotechnology and molecular biology are based on the techniques of genetic engineering and have been developing since the late 1970s. The techniques, materials and equipment used in the laboratories of both disciplines are very similar. 

What started as theoretic research in the 1970s has now moved into the mainstream of applied science. Genetic engineering techniques are used to manufacture drugs, foods , beverages, improve plant crops, alter food -animal characteristics, develop vaccines and to improve disease resistance in plants and animals, among the many applications. 

In the city of Brisbane, Australia in 1993 there were more than fifty public and private research groups using these techniques. In 1983 there were fewer than ten such groups ( author, personal observation). This same sort of growth has been occurring in science -based organisations around the world (Sleigh, 1991). The Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) (1991) reported that there were 72 organisations in Australia undertaking genetic engineering in 1283 different research projects as of June 30th, 1991. 

The techniques used in genetic engineering laboratories involve : 

- carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic chemicals - flammable, toxic and corrosive chemicals 

- electronic and high voltage equipment

- lasers 

- very high and very low temperatures (<-80 to >200 degree Celsius) 

- in vitro experimentation 

- in vivo experimentation (Innes, Gelfand, Snisky and Whitte 1990; Karam, Chao and Warr 1990). 

The literature shows that all of these techniques present potential hazards to laboratory staff. (see literature review) 

The challenge for Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) in institutions where genetic engineering research is conducted is to minimise the risk of the consequences of these hazards to staff. This can be done by developing an OH&S management programme that includes: induction, training, setting safety regulations, preparing safety manuals, monitoring compliance with regulations and ongoing health surveillance. 

OH&S managers must not only be cognisant of the hazards involved and their consequences, they must also gather data on the following: 

- What current knowledge staff have of hazards. - What perceptions staff have of the risks posed by each hazard. -What the staff expectations are about the consequence of hazard exposure. 

- How staff attitudes differ on their personal level of control of risk exposure. 

The researcher's background has been a combination of scientific research, scientific instrument marketing and recruitment of scientific staff. This has resulted in daily contact with staff in a wide variety of scientific organisations for the last fifteen years. 

During the course of this contact it has become more evident that, over time, there has been a growing divergence of attitudes to laboratory safety compliance enforcement between government and tertiary organisations and private industry. Private industry has been becoming increasingly strict, particularly in the enforcement of wearing protective clothing and restriction of laboratory access. There appears to have been a much slower change of attitude in government and tertiary facilities.    


Number of Pages



Central Queensland University

Place of Publication

Rockhampton, Qld.

Open Access

  • Yes

Era Eligible

  • No


Mr Bruce Acutt

Thesis Type

  • Master's by Research Thesis

Thesis Format

  • Traditional