Following the American Chemical Society’s National Meeting in Anaheim in March, a Safety Culture Task Force was established by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety, Society Committee on Education, Committee for Professional Training, and the Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Although the title of the task force doesn’t say so, its focus is specifically on safety culture in academic laboratories.
At a retreat in June, task force members identified some things that members believe are critical for strengthening safety cultures (per the pdf of the Council agenda, page 74):
- Teaching basic laboratory and chemical safety (shop safety included)
- Safety ethic/attitude/awareness
- Learning lessons from laboratory incidents
- Collaborative interactions
- Promoting and communicating safety
- Encouraging institutional support of safety by budgeting for safety programs and supplies
The task force then asked the ACS Council to take up the matter at the Denver meeting, to get comments and suggestions from councilors on ways that ACS could assist colleges and universities in developing better safety cultures and practices.
Here is a rough summary of what the councilors said (the Council allotted 30 minutes for this, with councilors restricted to 1 minute each, and several councilors said variations on the same thing):
- Create videos that schools can use for training (although one person commented that the problem is not the availability of resources or materials)
- Create a formal course in safety that is required for ACS-approved bachelor’s degree programs and/or a certificate program that students can put on their resumes (AIChE has a certificate program)
- Include safety in all labs—continually reinforce safety and don’t just have it be separate training—and involve students in risk analysis (Seattle University’s “safety teams” program got a nod)
- Make sure biological safety is included in training
- Make sure undergraduate laboratory experiments aren’t so sanitized that students don’t know how to handle real-lab situations
- Include safety content in exams and lab reports
- Provide guidance on policies such as working alone in lab (is there a line to be drawn somewhere between synthesis and running mass spectrometry samples?)
- Require faculty and deans to attend safety training along with students
- Tie faculty and administrator raises and contract renewal to safety performance
- Encourage experienced faculty to mentor new faculty, and experienced students to mentor new students (this, of course, assumes that “experienced” = “does things safely”)
- Make safety the first thing discussed at every staff meeting
- Make sure to reward—not punish—people for reporting problems or concerns
- Encourage academic institutions to seek guidance from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency
- Redesign the physical space of laboratory buildings to separate desk work from bench work
- Educate administrators on the benefit of allocating money to prevent problems
- Somehow “marshal the forces” of undergraduate members and student chapters to promote good safety culture, and give an award for chapter activities in this area
- But faculty need to lead—one department chair shared that he always has safety glasses with him, in case he needs to walk into a lab
- Encourage ACS local sections to facilitate communication between the academic and industrial communities, perhaps by enabling graduate students to visit industrial labs to see the culture there
- Develop a way for people to share safety success stories
- Also develop a database for incident reporting, including root cause analysis, so that lessons learned are available to the broader community
- Stop showing photos in C&EN articles and ads of people wearing safety glasses for projectiles rather than splash goggles, also work with TV and movie producers about showing appropriate personal protective equipment (I wrote last year about some of the issues around personal protective equipment in photos)
I came away from the Council discussion with three main thoughts: First, no one stood up either to defend academic laboratory safety culture or to say ACS shouldn’t get involved (rather, one councilor noted that “There is no college laboratory that I want to work in because they’re so unsafe”), and the flow of suggestions had to be cut off when time ran out. Clearly, the prevailing opinion is that there’s a role here for ACS.
Second, although my notes may not reflect this, I thought that there was too much emphasis on developing a safety class or certificate program. Those are great ideas—but only if they’re coupled to strong, daily reinforcement of safe lab practices in teaching and research laboratories. A one-course thing that is separate from the rest of the chemistry curriculum is not going to do much for the overall culture. (And, as I’ve said before, laboratory safety really comes down to chemical reactivity, so working safely really should be an integral part of chemistry curricula.)
Third, I also thought that there was too much emphasis on training students and not enough on the role of faculty and administration (a comment left on a post last week said the same thing). Trying to marshal student chapters isn’t going to get very far if the students’ teachers/advisers/mentors aren’t on board. (Re-)training faculty is, of course, a much harder problem than creating safety videos, but if the goal is to change culture, that will happen faster if you include the people with the power.
If you want to make your own suggestions to the task force, send them to email@example.com.