Inorganic chemistry undergraduate students at the University of California, Irvine, had a new feature added to their labs this spring: A 4.5-hour safety training session held at the beginning of the quarter.
The inorganic lab course is not for the faint of heart. The labs are each seven hours long, and some of the experiments involve reactive complexes that require vacuum lines, glove boxes, and Schlenk techniques, chemistry professor William J. Evans says. The class is required for chemistry majors and typically enrolls 150 students, divided into sections of 12 to 14 students each. “Some people think it a little crazy to try to do such sophisticated chemistry with so many undergraduates, but we have been able to do it and the students seem to enjoy it,” Evans adds.
The impetus for the additional safety training was a sense that the lab’s past effort—having students watch a video and take a quiz—wasn’t significant enough and students weren’t really getting the depth of training they needed, lecturer Kimberly D. Edwards says.
Over the past several years, UC Irvine’s Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S) department had also changed the training it was giving to incoming science graduate students. Ten years ago, new graduate students got 2 to 3 hours of lectures. That has now evolved to 2.5 hours of online training followed by an afternoon of hands-on modules done in small groups. The module topics cover such things as fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, compressed gases, spills, and personal protective equipment, EH&S safety coordinator Rama Singh says. The groups also spend time talking about different accident scenarios and how to handle the situations. This year, the chemistry department started including student stockroom workers in the training as well.
Evans, Edwards, and Singh essentially took the same approach with the undergraduates. Students were told during the winter quarter inorganic chemistry lecture class that they needed to do the online training before starting the lab class in the spring. The online training covered general laboratory safety topics and hazardous waste.
Then, the first week of spring quarter, the students chose one of two afternoons to attend the hands-on session. They spent an hour discussing possible accident scenarios relevant to the class, then rotated through modules on fume hoods, compressed gases, spill clean-up, fire safety, and risk assessment. The fume hood module involved a fog machine to demonstrate air flow. Students also used an eye wash station to remove whipped cream from goggles and extinguished a fire. For risk assessment, the students worked with a form developed by Advanced Chemical Safety. The training ended with a safety shower demonstration, in which Evans and Edwards subjected themselves to a drenching.
“Students were engaged the whole time and didn’t have any fatigue, which is remarkable for a four-hour program,” Edwards says. “They really enjoyed getting their hands on all these things.”
The only challenge, Edwards and colleagues say, was scheduling. Adding one 4.5-hour block of “discussion” time at the start of the quarter, separate from the regularly scheduled lab time, required jumping through a few administrative hoops. Some students had to work with the registrar and other faculty to iron out scheduling conflicts, but it’s not clear how big an issue that was, Edwards says. She and Evans are working to see if there’s a smoother way to handle the scheduling, but they’re committed to keeping the training at the start of the quarter. “The content of the training speaks to each experiment that the students do, so having it all at the beginning is the best thing,” Edwards says.