Campus-wide laboratory safety programs face three management considerations that don’t apply in a specific laboratory: the scalability, sustainability, and transferability of hazard management measures applied to chemicals and chemical processes. Presentations at the Division of Chemical Health and Safety’s technical program at the ACS National Meeting in San Francisco last week had several interesting examples of how these considerations play out in the real world.
This year’s winner of the College and University Safety award, sponsored by SafetyStratus, was the University of California, Davis. At Sunday’s award symposium, UC Davis lecturer Brian Enderle discussed the challenges of providing a safe and effective teaching laboratory experience at large scale, for 4,000 introductory chemistry students per quarter using the services of 90 teaching assistants. In this setting, laboratory safety planning involves not only the technical aspects of hazard assessment and management, but also maintaining the flexibility required to address unexpected behaviors that inevitably arise when that many people are involved in a common activity.
The next day, two more presentations from UC Davis discussed the individual scale: the experience of a PhD chemistry student, Henry “Hoby” Wedler, who is blind. While much of Wedler’s work is computational and aided by 3-D printouts of the molecules he models, he also works with human assistants to perform laboratory procedures. He has found that non-chemists make the best assistants because they are more explicit in describing what is physically occurring. Fellow chemists tend to elide over the details of what they are doing and observing, as they consider those elements “common sense,” he said. It struck me that this observation also applies to key safety elements in laboratory practices: They are often overlooked because they aren’t considered remarkable by the experienced chemist, but they are not second nature to the beginning researcher. A key point that Wedler made about managing lab safety as he does his chemistry is that he is explicitly conscious not only about his own safety, but also the safety of those around him. “Everyone needs assistance in being safe in the lab, I just need a little more than others,” he added.
The Tuesday morning session addressed sustainability, with several presentations about the concept of “Green Labs” – laboratories for which the design scope includes safety and environmental concerns as well as the chemistry at hand. The striking element of this symposium was how far the lab support community had come since a similar forum in San Francisco in 2010, in terms of defining and implementing what how a “Green Lab” works. Speakers discussed three different checklists for best Green Lab practices (one from the University of Washington, one from the University of California system and one from Cornell University) and highlighted strategies for implementing the practices. Jillian Emerson, who manages the lab dispensary at UC Davis, presented a success story: development of a recycling program for lab gloves from teaching labs.
The Tuesday afternoon symposium gave good examples of the challenges of the transferability of chemical safety practices. It began with a discussion of how lab safety conditions evolved from 1950 to 1990, both in academia and industry. Many of the historical lab practices described would be considered imprudent today. The next two presentations addressed the environmental effects of historical science practices and the challenges that arose when this chemistry was transferred to other settings. A striking theme of these presentations was the challenge of maintaining a balance between lab safety and lab productivity – between “chemophobia” and “science at any cost” – without tipping too far in either direction. This symposium ended with presentations about how campuses are providing oversight of this balance.
An especially interesting presentation in this section was given by Ken Smith, UC systemwide laboratory safety manager, who discussed distributing eye protection and lab coats to 40,000 lab workers in less than a year. His presentation demonstrated all three challenges: Scaling personal protective equipment (PPE) from a single user to 40,000 presented hurdles in fitting the PPE to the individual; transferring PPE policy from one campus to another identified many logistical challenges at the various campus; and the sustainability of this program is still to be worked out, as laundry and maintenance practices for the equipment are still to be determined. The key lesson I learned from this presentation was the importance of fitting the equipment to the individual in order to prevent the ergonomic problems created by the “one size fits all” approach. I learned, to paraphrase an old saying, that by giving someone safety glasses and labcoats, you protect them for a day; however, if you take the time to fit their safety glasses and labcoats, you protect them for a career.