Building laboratory safety skills critical to undergraduate education

From this week’s issue of C&EN, a letter on laboratory safety education:

I read Rudy Baum’s editorial “Educating Ph.D. Chemists” with interest, especially the discussion about safety culture in academia versus that in industry and government laboratories (C&EN, March 28, page 3). We continue to hear about a weak safety culture in academia. After many years’ experience working as a research chemist and as a health and safety manager in government, I believe the gap in the knowledge of chemistry graduates is a result of the inadequacy of the safety education process for chemistry un der graduates.

Building a safety-conscious culture requires constant reinforcement of safety in all laboratory processes. If academic institutions would incorporate safety throughout the entire undergraduate curriculum, bringing up safety at each and every laboratory session over the four years of study, then they would begin to build stronger safety cultures. This in turn requires that faculty and staff become strong leaders and proponents of safety, not just in words but by their actions, demonstrating that safety is a critical and important component of all chemistry.

Realizing that many would not know what an undergraduate student should learn about safety, Dave Finster and I wrote an undergraduate textbook, “Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students.” [Jyllian notes: C&EN previewed the book a year ago.] Using this or some other resource to provide lessons in safety for each laboratory session will over time build the kind of safety culture that is needed in academia. This not only serves undergraduates who go on with their undergraduate degrees to become secondary school teachers and chemists working in industry, but it can also prepare graduate students to safely carry out their research in academic labs.

Skills in laboratory safety should be essential and critical elements in the undergraduate process. The reason that safety is a critical skill is that if you don’t follow safety principles and practices, you or others can be injured or even killed. This cannot be said of other areas of chemistry study. Current educational efforts do not adequately teach the knowledge needed to develop strong laboratory safety skills. There are many ways to incorporate safety throughout the curriculum, including prelab assignments, lectures, homework assignments, etc. Academia needs to develop a strategy to teach strong laboratory safety skills to its undergraduate students.

Robert H. Hill Jr.
Stone Mountain, Ga.

I’ve covered several schools’ approaches to undergraduate laboratory safety training over the last year. Anyone else doing something interesting with their lab curricula? Who’s tried using Hill & Finster’s book and how did it go?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Chemical safety is closely tied to basic understanding of toxicology. My view is that today’s students get actually less exposure to toxicology and the basic mechanisms of chemical toxicity than chemistry students in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As an example, most major organic chemistry or inorganic chemistry textbooks today do not appear to touch upon the relative toxicities of the compounds under discussion.

    Universities could lead in teaching safety culture while at the same time deepening the understanding of the chemistry behind the mechanisms of toxicity. For example, discussions of electrophiles, alkylating agents and conjugate additions could be enhanced by bringing the students’ attention to the toxicity and carcinogenicity of most alkylating agents and Michael acceptors. Similarly, the toxicity of lead and mercury could also evoke intersting discussions about periodicity, hard/soft acid principles, coordination chemistry etc. I believe if universities would adopt an approach that understanding toxicity and safety issues IS a part of understanding of chemistry, the safety culture at universities would also be easier to improve.

    It is the purpose of academia to prepare students to answer questions “why”. The “how” should then follow. Also, it is part of good academic training to warn the students that knowledge is imperfect and surprises are to be expected – also in predictions of toxicity and chemical reactivity.

  2. @Paul – So, what do you think students would pay attention to?

    @Petri – Welcome to the blog! I tend to share your view–since chemical safety and toxicology are rooted in chemical reactivity, they should be integral to chemistry education and laboratory work.

  3. Students need to be engaged and entertained. I think safety should be taught hands on…haul out the equipment, stage a spill, put kids in the shower, and if you’ve got ’em, show videos and images of accidents and injuries. Turn up the volume, pass around copies of the medical bills, etc. Make the stakes come alive.

    You also have to ditch the “cover your ass” approach all too commonly found in modern safety training. That is to say, there are some safety things that matter more than others. Hammer home the hazards that are grave and common. Mention–but don’t sweat–the small stuff (e.g., a little ethanol down the drain). Keeping things in perspective is important because failing to do so detracts from the hazards that are actually important.