Two weekends ago, I attended an informal ACS meeting in Philadelphia that had two functions. One, in which I participated, was a writing session for the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) Task Force on Laboratory Chemical & Waste Management to update two of our documents. The second was a mini-summit of ACS groups to talk about safety culture. The two groups met together only during meals and for a brief joint session.
The safety culture meeting, which was essentially an ad-hoc group of CCS and Society Committee on Education members, was there primarily to address concerns over shortcomings in academic safety policies in the U.S. ACS President Nancy Jackson was a special guest, adding her perspective and taking the opportunity to learn more on this issue. Chaired by Dr. Robert Hill, the group appears to have a good handle on safety culture, what it means, and the nature of this culture at a wide variety of academic institutions.
Many organizations have tried to define the term “safety culture”; perhaps the best is one from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (pdf): “safety culture is how the organization behaves when no one is watching”. The discussion was similar to the National Academies’ Safety Summit last year. While recent laboratory incidents are a major impetus for these and other explorations of (primarily) academic chemical safety, many people have been concerned for some time that colleges and universities don’t do a good job of training and supervising either students or faculty, for various reasons.
Research has been done, stories told, and questionnaires sent. Evaluation and discussion are ongoing. But the real question is where do we go from here? How can we convince colleges and universities to make safety a higher priority? Since industry reportedly most values those graduates with a strong safety background, why aren’t more institutions making this a focus? What can ACS and other organizations do to encourage this?
- Strengthen the ACS Committee on Professional Training accreditation program for undergraduate chemistry programs. Give it some teeth, perhaps in the form of funds to enable actual audits of college safety programs. More than 300 schools of all sizes participate in that program, and all place value on the accreditation.
- Continue to seek input and involvement from the Campus Safety Health & Environmental Management Association, the National Association of College & University Business Officers, and other campus safety organizations. Form a consensus on what standards should be applied to laboratory safety in academic institutions, and then apply them.
What are yours?