UMN is one of the universities benefiting from a program Dow announced last year in which the company is investing $25 million per year for 10 years in research programs at 11 academic institutions. The new safety program is independent of that effort but germinated in the relationship established between Dow and the university, says Frank S. Bates, head of UMN’s chemical engineering and materials science department.
The safety program also extends beyond research programs sponsored by Dow. Central to the effort is a Joint Safety Team (JST) made up of the safety officers from every chemistry and chemical engineering research group. “All of those safety officers will be interacting with Dow and working together to learn best safety practices” from the company, says William B. Tolman, chair of the chemistry department.
At a kick-off meeting a few weeks ago, representatives from Dow and the university agreed that their focus would be on building and sustaining a good safety culture. UMN already seems to have some good procedures and protocols in place, says Pankaj Gupta, senior strategy leader for research and development at Dow. The task is how to raise awareness of those and how to share Dow’s best practices and adapt them to a university setting.
To that end, in the next couple of weeks, Dow and UMN plan to survey chemistry and chemical engineering faculty, postdocs, and students to get their feedback on the current state of laboratory safety and what needs to be improved. Then the program will try to address those concerns by having Dow representatives visit the campus to work with members of the JST. Some or all JST members will also visit Dow, where they will be exposed to things like Dow’s training program, its laboratory audits, and how scientists approach experiments, Gupta says. Repeat surveys will help determine how the program progresses.
Gupta has already surveyed recently-hired Dow employees to get their input on the differences between academic and Dow safety culture. “The number one theme that came up again and again was awareness,” Gupta says, adding that other concerns included specifications for protective equipment, protocols, and pre-task analysis. “When our new employees come in, they spend about 30 hours in mandatory training before they can set foot in the lab to do an experiment,” providing an immediate lesson that safety comes first, Gupta says. Monthly safety meetings and pre-task analysis, in which peer groups discuss the hazards of new procedures and what to do if something goes wrong, also reinforce that safety is an integral part of laboratory experiments.
One of the things the pilot program will work on is creating an environment in which it is both expected and comfortable for people to raise questions and work with each other around hazard assessment, says Lori Seiler, associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development at Dow.
The pilot program will run through the summer. Then Dow and UMN will take stock of the effort and figure out how to proceed. Two UMN alumni now employed at Dow—one chemist and one chemical engineer—are on the core team working with the university.
Neither Dow nor UMN comes to the program with the expectation that the university will duplicate Dow’s safety program, Bates says. “But there’s a lot of room between what we’ve done in the past and what they do at Dow,” he says. “Our intention is to make things better in a university setting.”
Key to the effort is the JST, Tolman adds. “We decided early on that it would be actual students and postdocs who would lead the effort, since they’re the ones in the labs,” he says. And the interdepartmental nature of the team should strengthen it, by providing both a common goal and a wider range of experience.
The team should also help address the problem of high turnover in academic labs, Tolman says. Even as some JST members leave every year, their replacements will learn from and be supported by veteran members. And if the safety officers are trained well, they in turn will do a better job of training new research group members, Tolman says.
“My own safety officer from my group came in my office two days ago and she told me flat-out, ‘This is going to make my job easier,’” Bates adds. He hopes that the JST will add some professionalism to the safety officers and promote their authority in the research groups they serve. “And to have a partner at Dow who they can consult with and make contact with occasionally as a resource? That’s just fantastic,” Bates says.
Bates and Tolman say that their faculty members are enthusiastic about the program, even though it means a big time commitment for the safety officers. “We agree it takes time, but it needs to take time. This is important and a high priority for us,” Tolman says.
And although the safety officers may have some busy weeks ahead, in six months or a year from now, “it’s not going to take any more time. I think it will take less time and less concern on the part of the safety officers,” Bates says.