When I reflect on my department’s safety training, I realize that too often we send a message to students that we need to behave safely to avoid getting into trouble. “Wear your goggles so you don’t get yelled at.” “Dispose of your waste properly so we don’t get fined.” “No food or drink in the lab so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t shut us down.” Those perspectives cater to the idea that chemists and chemistry make problems, and they instill a culture of compliance rather than a culture of safety. In reality, many of us went into chemistry to solve problems, and being safe is an important component of creating that problem-solution environment. Safety should be a positive identity issue. I am a chemist, so of course I strive to be as safe as I can be.
Being safe chemists requires that every one of us own the responsibility for safety. Safety should not be delegated to a set of rules made by a designated safety officer; it should be the concern and responsibility of every person who works in a lab or is part of a process. For example, in the semester when my co-instructor for an advanced lab class was pregnant, I impressed on the students that it was everyone’s responsibility, not just hers, to make sure that she was not accidentally exposed to hazardous chemicals. We should not only be safe as individuals, but we should each contribute energetically and enthusiastically to the safety of the entire community.
So writes Laura Pence, a chemistry professor at the University of Hartford and the director of the American Chemical Society’s District I, in a comment in C&EN this week. Read the full piece to see what else she has to say.
It’s unfortunate that we didn’t link to the resources she mentions, but they’re all available on the Committee on Chemical Safety’s website.