GAO Says FDA Should Strengthen Efforts to Provide Effective Lab Safety Oversight

In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration created a new office within the agency to oversee its lab safety program. But, 3 years later, there are still disagreements within the FDA about the office’s roles and responsibilities.

Moreover, FDA’s lab safety program does not include key elements of effective oversight. For example, lab safety office staff cannot inspect labs unannounced. Unannounced inspections can help to better observe a lab’s normal operating conditions.

The Government Accountability Office recommended that the FDA resolve disagreements over the office’s roles and responsibilities and provide it with the authority to oversee lab safety.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken steps intended to improve safety at its laboratories, including those that work with hazardous biological agents. Specifically, FDA created the Office of Laboratory Safety (OLS) in 2017 as a safety oversight body for all FDA laboratories.

In coordination with FDA’s operating divisions—known as centers—OLS has standardized safety policies, incident reporting, inspections, and safety training. However in creating OLS, FDA did not implement key reform practices that could have helped ensure OLS’s effectiveness. For example, FDA’s centers and OLS did not reach a shared understanding of OLS’s roles and responsibilities—a key practice for effective agency reforms. Although senior agency leaders were involved in developing OLS’s strategic plan, disagreements about OLS’s role raised by center directors at that time still remain. For example, center directors told GAO that OLS’s mission should not include science, laboratory quality management, or inspections. Conversely, the director of OLS said OLS remains committed to its mission as envisioned in the strategic plan, which includes these areas of responsibility. FDA officials said they plan to update the plan in 2021, which presents an opportunity for FDA to address areas of disagreement.

In its current form, FDA’s laboratory safety program also does not meet the key elements of effective oversight identified in GAO’s prior work. For example,

  • The oversight organization should have clear authority to ensure compliance with requirements. However, as part of a 2019 reorganization, FDA placed the OLS director at a lower level than the center directors. Also, OLS does not directly manage the center safety staff responsible for ensuring the implementation of safety policies that OLS develops. As a result, OLS has limited ability to access centers’ laboratories—in part because they cannot inspect them unannounced—or to ensure compliance with safety policies.
  • The oversight organization should also be independent from program offices to avoid conflict between program objectives and safety. However, OLS depends on the centers for much of its funding and has had to negotiate with the centers annually for those funds, which can allow center directors to influence OLS priorities through the funding amounts they approve. FDA has not assessed potential independence risks from using center funds for OLS. Without taking steps to do so, FDA’s laboratory safety program will continue to compete with the centers’ mission objectives and priorities.

GAO is making five recommendations to FDA, including to resolve disagreements over roles and responsibilities, to provide OLS with the authority and access to facilities necessary to oversee laboratory safety, and to take steps to assess and mitigate any independence risks posed by how OLS is funded. HHS agreed with all five recommendations.

Read more at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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