On the importance of teaching safety

From this week’s issue of C&EN, a letter to the editor from Dow’s William F. Banholzer, Corning’s Gary S. Calabrese, and DuPont’s Pat Confalone discusses whether laboratory safety should have been included in “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences“:

As members of the ACS Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, we challenge Richard N. Zare’s comment on the inappropriateness of including a recommendation about laboratory safety in our report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (C&EN, March 4, page 51). While admitting that safety is important, Zare states the report “should instead have been about preparing graduate students, about the future.”

What is more important in graduate education than ensuring students complete their research as safe and healthy as the day they entered graduate school? A graduate education is the ideal place to instill the mind-set that if you can’t do research while carrying out the best safety practices, then you shouldn’t do it at all. The recommendation to include safety in the final report was unanimously supported by all commission members. …

The facts are unequivocal. Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab. There have been serious accidents in academic labs in recent years—including fatalities—that could have been prevented with the proper use of protective equipment and safer laboratory procedures.

Most chemistry and chemical engineering graduate students will find employment in industry. As new hires come on board, many companies spend weeks on remedial safety training before new hires are allowed to work in their labs. This clearly shows that the current state of graduate safety education is lacking and that there is a clear need to address it. If the report is supposed to focus on “preparing graduate students, about the future,” how can this not be a relevant topic? …

The “11 times more likely” statistic is inaccurately framed. I followed up on it with the letter authors and Lori Seiler, Dow’s associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development. The numbers actually compare the overall injury and illness rate for academic institutions (including those that might occur, for example, in grounds keeping or a dining hall as well as in laboratories) to Dow’s overall rate. Seiler adds that the injury and illness rate for Dow’s research laboratories is consistent with the company’s overall rate, when calculated per employee.

That said, it seems like it would be wise for the academic community to take this letter to heart.  Banholzer, Calabrese, and Confalone are not writing in a vacuum—they see the skills that chemistry graduates lack, and those skills are necessary whether those graduates are going on to work in industry, academia, or elsewhere.

On a related note, yours truly will be heading  to Virginia next week for the Council for Chemical Research annual meeting on May 19-21. On the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on the pilot laboratory safety program that Dow began last year with the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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3 Comments

  1. As a member of the industrial hygiene field, we often see newbies who lack the necessary chemical safety training required for the job. I agree with letter and feel that these safety skills should be taught in school.

  2. The reliance on oral history in the academic research lab to convey proper lab practices has contributed to the rise in accidents. As labs become more interdisciplinary and undergraduate volunteers become the norm S&H training will become even more important. It is imperative that these students get the training through their academic course work to ensure they have the safety and health skills needed to meet the challenge of the evolving research environment.

  3. The reliance on oral history in the academic research lab to convey proper lab practices has contributed to the rise in accidents. As labs become more interdisciplinary and undergraduate volunteers become the norm S&H training will become even more important through their academic course work.