ACS Council takes up academic lab safety

Following the American Chemical Society’s National Meeting in Anaheim in March, a Safety Culture Task Force was established by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety, Society Committee on Education, Committee for Professional Training, and the Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Although the title of the task force doesn’t say so, its focus is specifically on safety culture in academic laboratories.

At a retreat in June, task force members identified some things that members believe are critical for strengthening safety cultures (per the pdf of the Council agenda, page 74):

  • Leadership
  • Teaching basic laboratory and chemical safety (shop safety included)
  • Safety ethic/attitude/awareness
  • Learning lessons from laboratory incidents
  • Collaborative interactions
  • Promoting and communicating safety
  • Encouraging institutional support of safety by budgeting for safety programs and supplies

The task force then asked the ACS Council to take up the matter at the Denver meeting, to get comments and suggestions from councilors on ways that ACS could assist colleges and universities in developing better safety cultures and practices.

Here is a rough summary of what the councilors said (the Council allotted 30 minutes for this, with councilors restricted to 1 minute each, and several councilors said variations on the same thing):

  • Create videos that schools can use for training (although one person commented that the problem is not the availability of resources or materials)
  • Create a formal course in safety that is required for ACS-approved bachelor’s degree programs and/or a certificate program that students can put on their resumes (AIChE has a certificate program)
  • Include safety in all labs—continually reinforce safety and don’t just have it be separate training—and involve students in risk analysis (Seattle University’s “safety teams” program got a nod)
  • Make sure biological safety is included in training
  • Make sure undergraduate laboratory experiments aren’t so sanitized that students don’t know how to handle real-lab situations
  • Include safety content in exams and lab reports
  • Provide guidance on policies such as working alone in lab (is there a line to be drawn somewhere between synthesis and running mass spectrometry samples?)
  • Require faculty and deans to attend safety training along with students
  • Tie faculty and administrator raises and contract renewal to safety performance
  • Encourage experienced faculty to mentor new faculty, and experienced students to mentor new students (this, of course, assumes that “experienced” = “does things safely”)
  • Make safety the first thing discussed at every staff meeting
  • Make sure to reward—not punish—people for reporting problems or concerns
  • Encourage academic institutions to seek guidance from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Redesign the physical space of laboratory buildings to separate desk work from bench work
  • Educate administrators on the benefit of allocating money to prevent problems
  • Somehow “marshal the forces” of undergraduate members and student chapters to promote good safety culture, and give an award for chapter activities in this area
  • But faculty need to lead—one department chair shared that he always has safety glasses with him, in case he needs to walk into a lab
  • Encourage ACS local sections to facilitate communication between the academic and industrial communities, perhaps by enabling graduate students to visit industrial labs to see the culture there
  • Develop a way for people to share safety success stories
  • Also develop a database for incident reporting, including root cause analysis, so that lessons learned are available to the broader community
  • Stop showing photos in C&EN articles and ads of people wearing safety glasses for projectiles rather than splash goggles, also work with TV and movie producers about showing appropriate personal protective equipment (I wrote last year about some of the issues around personal protective equipment in photos)

I came away from the Council discussion with three main thoughts: First, no one stood up either to defend academic laboratory safety culture or to say ACS shouldn’t get involved (rather, one councilor noted that “There is no college laboratory that I want to work in because they’re so unsafe”), and the flow of suggestions had to be cut off when time ran out. Clearly, the prevailing opinion is that there’s a role here for ACS.

Second, although my notes may not reflect this, I thought that there was too much emphasis on developing a safety class or certificate program. Those are great ideas—but only if they’re coupled to strong, daily reinforcement of safe lab practices in teaching and research laboratories. A one-course thing that is separate from the rest of the chemistry curriculum is not going to do much for the overall culture. (And, as I’ve said before, laboratory safety really comes down to chemical reactivity, so working safely really should be an integral part of chemistry curricula.)

Third, I also thought that there was too much emphasis on training students and not enough on the role of faculty and administration (a comment left on a post last week said the same thing). Trying to marshal student chapters isn’t going to get very far if the students’ teachers/advisers/mentors aren’t on board. (Re-)training faculty is, of course, a much harder problem than creating safety videos, but if the goal is to change culture, that will happen faster if you include the people with the power.

If you want to make your own suggestions to the task force, send them to

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. One factor that I would like to see is an improvement in the quality and consistency of MSDS’s from various manufactures. I often find them to be either woefully lacking or overly detailed but failing to summarize the main points in a way that a busy person is likely actually read.

    In contrast, the HIMS system over-condenses to the point that chemicals with wildly different hazards get lumped together. Researchers often become immune to any number other than a “4” rating, but many “3” rated chemicals can be very dangerous. For example, both hydrochloric acid and epichlorohydrin have a “3” HIMS health rating. Yet the latter is truly a more dangerous compound, because HCl accidents are generally readily apparent, understood, and mitigated, and standard lab PPE (hood, rubber/nitrile gloves, goggles, lab coat, and apron if large scale) are generally sufficient. Epichlorohydrin, in contrast, has delayed effects (sensitization and subsequent burns which may appear hours after exposure), can dangerously linger on clothes, and readily penetrates nitrile gloves. Epichlorohydrin requires a much more extensive safety protocols, but this isn’t obvious from HIMS. Another issue with HIMS is that a “3” rating in flammability, which applies to many common laboratory solvents, may have an effect of de-sensitizing researchers to “3” rated chemicals in the health or reactivity categories, which are generally substantially more dangerous unless chemical-specific protocols are followed. “3” flammibility rated chemicals are dangerous, but generally so in familiar manner that is readily mitigated by basic laboratory equipment and training.

    Likewise, labels like “toxic”, “carcinogenic”, teratogenic” aren’t really helpful in binary form. Researches can easily develop an immunity to these labels if they are slapped on half the chemicals they use. This can then come back to haunt them when they work with something that is extremely toxic or carcinogenic, but had the same warning as something far more mundane.

    In short, HIMS doesn’t really tell a researcher with a quick glance whether standard laboratory PPE and handling are sufficient, or whether specific PPE and handling are required. My ideal system would lie somewhere between HIMS and a detailed MSDS, perhaps rating chemicals on a 0-5 scale on about ten categories in a standard format at the top of the MSDS, with a 4 or 5 rating implying that standard lab practices are certainly insufficient for handling the chemical. The ratings should individually contain categories for skin, eye, and respiratory protection, giving workers and immediate warning that a compound may require special gloves, goggles, ventilation, or other PPE.

  2. One suggestion I haven’t heard is to require a HAZOP assessment prior to any laboratory procedure. This would involve a careful look at the materials and equipment involved and a WRITTEN assessment of what can go wrong and what needs to be done to prevent this from occuring. As Jyllian notes, “laboratory safety really comes down to reactivity”. By understanding all of the possible consequences of a reaction, the lab worker should have a much better handle on what is necessary to perform the procedure safely.

  3. I honestly do not think that we’re going to see full-blown HAZOPs being utilized in chemical laboratories, Russ. Most chemists do not have the engineering background that it takes to ask the in-depth “what if” questions that are associated with HAZOP. Heck, we still have grad students and post-docs heating closed stills! What we *should* see recommendations for “HAZOP-like” risk assessments coming out of the task force for reactions that need them. All (any) laboratory procedure? I don’t think that is necessary.

    Jyllian’s assessment of “laboratory safety really comes down to reactivity” is not completely true: For example – Karen Wetterhahn’s death had absolutely nothing to do with reactivity (in the sense that the word is primarily used) and everything to do with toxicity and lack of information regarding the use of personal protective equipment.

    In my opinion, complete laboratory safety is about controlling the material that you’re working with. That *could* mean controlling reactive hazards, but it can also mean controlling exposure through traditional methods of engineering/administrative controls and (proper) personal protective equipment. The fundamental idea being keeping the stuff where it belongs and away from where it doesn’t belong.

  4. @Harry: To my mind, toxicity also comes down to reactivity. 🙂

    But you (indirectly) bring up glove permeability, and you may have me there. Material properties other than reactivity definitely play a role there.

    And lack of information can certainly also be a problem.

  5. In looking over the more than 300 laboratory deaths recorded on the Laboratory Safety Institutes’ (LSI) virtual Memorial Wall,,
    it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to lab safety than just reactivity.

    Thanks to a grant from the Dow Chemical Company and Dow Education, LSI is expanding its public Resource Library. The Laboratory Safety Guidelines are now available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. German and Japanese versions will be posted soon.

    Also to be posted soon will be LSI published collection of 1,500 lab accidents,”Learning By Accident”. Up to 4,000 more will be added.

    LSI welcomes the donation of resource materials to be posted in this public library.

  6. Hi,
    I’m Richard N. Knowles, Ph.D. (ACS Member Number 156779). I have a over 50 years of safety experience as both a line manager (several plants) for DuPont and as an international safety consultant. We, in Richard N. Knowles and Associates, Inc. teach a simple, 3 phase safety leadership culture change process that is highly successful. I think that this would be very useful in universities to help to make a significant impact in improving the safety performance. The process results in rapid improvements in performance. I would like the opportunity to talk with Robert H. Hill, Jr. to see if there is any interest in our being able to help improve the safety in university labs. Our web site, given above, has background information on our work.
    Richard N. Knowles, Ph.D.