Proposed ACS undergrad guidelines increase safety requirements

This week’s issue of C&EN includes a story by Celia Arnaud about proposed changes to the ACS Guidelines for Bachelor’s Degree Programs, which are developed by the Committee on Professional Training. The issue also has a comment by committee leaders Anne B. McCoy of Ohio State University and Ron W. Darbeau of Louisiana’s McNeese State University.

Included in the changes are revisions to the safety requirements. Former committee leaders told me a few years ago that the last guidelines revision, completed in 2008, had more explicitly addressed safety than earlier versions, so the newly-proposed revisions take the criteria a step further.

Here’s what the requirements say now in the safety section:

7.3 Laboratory Safety Skills.
Approved programs should promote a safety-conscious culture in which students understand the concepts of safe laboratory practices and how to apply them. Programs should train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational level and scientific needs. A high degree of safety awareness should begin during the first laboratory course, and both classroom and laboratory discussions must stress safe practices. Students should understand responsible disposal techniques, understand and comply with safety regulations, understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS), recognize and minimize potential chemical and physical hazards in the laboratory, and know how to handle laboratory emergencies effectively.

And here’s what’s proposed (overall, there’s a shift from “shoulds” to “musts”):

Section 7.3 Laboratory Safety Skills (p. 14-15)
Programs must train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational level and scientific needs. Approved programs must promote a safety-conscious culture in which students understand the concepts of safe laboratory practices and apply them.

  • Programs must train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational and scientific needs.
  • The promotion of safety awareness and skills must begin during the first laboratory experience and be incorporated into each lab experience thereafter. Classroom and laboratory discussions must stress safe practices. Students should be actively engaged in the evaluation and assessment of safety risks associated with laboratory experiences.
  • Safety understanding and skills should build throughout the curriculum and be assessed.
  • Students should
    • understand responsible disposal techniques
    • understand and comply with safety regulations
    • understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS)
    • recognize and minimize potential chemical and physical hazards in the laboratory and know how to effectively handle laboratory emergencies.
  • Students must undergo general safety training as well as lab-specific training before beginning undergraduate research.
  • Approved programs must have an active, departmental safety committee.

What say you, readers? Are the proposed changes necessary or sufficient? What would you add or subtract?

From McCoy and Darbeau’s piece this week: “Please send comments to by Aug. 1 so they can be discussed at the next CPT meeting. The committee will also hold an extended open meeting on Sept. 8 at the ACS national meeting in Indianapolis that will focus on the guidelines revision. Details will be posted on the CPT website. CPT plans to publish the new guidelines in 2014.”

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I completely agree with the proposed changes! I feel we are currently under-preparing the majority of students for real-life industry safety and/or graduate school. Often (as we’ve seen in the media) that lack of safety training carries over into graduate school…and then beyond to post graduate work and back into higher education as these new PhD’s start teaching. Many students don’t get a thorough indoctrination into solid lab safety practices until they reach industry. As a student who graduated with a BS in Chemistry who went straight to work for industry how well prepared they were for the mandatory EHS training they must go through before they can even get to work in the lab.

  2. I am much more comfortable with the proposed language than with the existing. I objected in ’07 when the ’08 language was proposed. I have suggested to CPT to drop the word “material” – I am sure that will happen.

    I wish ACS would visit a few campuses each year and also implement metrics to help track all of this.


  3. I, too, favor the proposed standards. As noted in Jyllian’s comments, “must” has now appeared, and replaced “should” in several statements. (I counted: 4 “should’s” in the 2008 Guidelines; proposed language now has 2 “should’s” and 7 “must’s”!) This is a significant semantic shift.

    Among other “upgrades”, the proposed Guidelines now “require” (= a “should”, in this instance) that “safety understanding and skills should build through the curriculum and be assessed.” This is a significant change in that departments may asked to demonstrate “learning”, rather than just “teaching”. This kind of benchmark has long be used in the traditional subject areas of chemistry, of course. It also implies that safety instruction should be occurring in all lab courses, at all levels. Yes! This is one important way to foster a safety culture about which so much has appeared in the past year.

    (Note to chemical educators: The ACS Exams Institute has available a “Chemical Health and Safety Exam” of vintage 1997. It has not been revised in 16 years due to, I understand, extremely poor sales. Perhaps the new “assessment requirement” will prompt some demand voiced to the Exams Institute for a new exam with the promise/expectation for better sales.)

    Should the Guidelines go further? They surely could, in extent and in detail. But, the chemical education community follows an evolutionary path with incremental changes of various sizes as new Guidelines appear. The CPT walks a narrow path between being bold and (necessarily) being acceptable.

    Finally, I wrote to the CPT a year ago with a proposal to overhaul their Guidelines to remove (what I see as) artificial distinctions between “content” and “skills” in the Guidelines in such a fashion that would acknowledge that “safety” is just not a “skill” but also has a considerable knowledge base that is important. This proposal, which has not been included in the proposed changes, was (to my thinking) perhaps a bit too much for an evolutionary process. Perhaps in the next revision…? (Those interested in this proposal can hear about it at the Indy ACS meeting in the CHAS-sponsored symposium on “New Horizons in Chemical Health and Safety”.)

  4. @Dave–I’ve been contemplating the assessment piece since I posted this and thinking that it will be a rather significant change for a lot of schools. Do you assess safety learning in your classes? How?

  5. Assessment is easy – once you decide to do it. In our program, we have a coordinated safety instruction program in all of our courses that have laboratory components. (We use “Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students”, the textbook that Bob Hill and I wrote. All 70 sections of the book are addressed for students to take the ACS degrees. Programs needn’t use this book to teach safety across the chemistry curriculum, but it is convenient to do so.) Each instructor has a “body of safety information” that they are obliged to teach in their course. The teaching episodes are almost always part of pre-lab discussions. Assessment often involves online multiple-choice online quizzes (associated with the textbook) in many courses. Some faculty include questions on exams, other use a separate safety exam as part of the final exam in the course. Once you commit to a certain level of instruction, it is natural outcome to hold the students accountable through some assessment. In this fashion, the students know that we are serious about safety. And, having this embedded in all courses surely fosters the “culture of safety”. We also use the ACS exam on CH&S as an internal assessment with out seniors each year. The ACS DUCK exam also has a few safety questions on it. Other ACS exams might have safety questions; this is determined by the whims of the committees that write these exams.

    The other assessment is an indirect one. Our students know they get a thorough education in safety, and although our numbers are quite low and don’t merit statistical significance, we get feedback from graduates how they later realize how good this instruction was. We have a few anecdotal comments from employers who are impressed with the safety knowledge displayed by our graduates. One recent grad went through the safety training program that is required by the chemical company that hired her. She reported back to us, “… but I already knew all that stuff.”

    Once faculty decide that safety instruction is important, assessment is a natural outcome since 1) it is a method to hold students accountable for learning, 2) it provides useful feedback to instructors about student learning, and 3) it becomes part of the database of information for accrediting agencies (or internal assessment of learning) to demonstrate that students have learned what they were taught. We do this, of course, in the five sub-disciplines of chemistry (ABIOP); why would it NOT be done for safety?

    It all starts with faculty commitment. It takes a little class/lab time (except for online quizzes), but this is part of the commitment. The proposed ACS Guidelines will surely nudge departments and faculty to become more intentional about safety instruction – and holding students accountable for that instruction.

  6. In twenty years working in the chemical industry the only chemical injury that I have received was in an organic chemistry lab while getting my BSc.
    I had to bring safety equipment and PPE from work (readily agreed to by my supervisor and her boss) to protect myself in chem labs. This is long overdue.

  7. To the “Students should” bullet I would add something along the lines of understand and use the safety literature. There is a wealth of safety information in every chemistry library and online. I am thinking here of Sax’s, Bretherick’s, Prudent Practices, and a plethora of other sources far too long to list. I understand that the “understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS)” is probably a mandatory item if for nothing else legal reasons, but in my opinion MSD sheets are inadequate as stand-alone sources of chemical safety. My opinion derives not only from my own personal experience but also from the literature, for example see G. Agam Org. Proc. Res. Devel. 2004, 8, 1042-1044. Indeed, wasn’t it only a few months ago that this blog discussed the inadequate MSD sheets for Togni’s reagent(s)?
    The undergraduate experience is the perfect time to point students to the literature. This is done in many of their other courses, why not include lab safety as well when there is so much safety literature available?

  8. Ken,

    I agree. I teach my students to read MSDSs (now evolving to SDSs) but I also teach them NOT to use them since they are unreliable! (SDSs will still be good vehicles for alerting students to the KINDS of safety information about which they should be aware.) I like TOXNET as a good online (almost entirely refereed/validated) resource. And, they hear about Prudent Practices, to be sure. These are efforts in our general chemistry curriculum. I save something like Bretherick’s and other resources that are more suitable for students with more chemistry background for safety discussion in advanced courses.