Promoting Better Academic Lab Safety Culture | August 4, 2014 Issue - Vol. 92 Issue 31 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 92 Issue 31 | p. 7 | News of The Week
Issue Date: August 4, 2014 | Web Date: July 31, 2014

Promoting Better Academic Lab Safety Culture

Core Value: Studies suggest ways to support safe research practices
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Safety
Keywords: lab safety, hazard analysis, risk analysis, near-miss, incident report
NRC Recommendations


1. Institution leaders must actively demonstrate that safety is a core value.

2. Leaders should include fostering a positive safety culture in criteria for faculty promotion, tenure, and salary decisions.

3. Leaders should consider what research can be done safely, given resources available.

4. Institutions should have comprehensive risk-management plans for lab safety.

5. Department chairs and principal investigators (PIs) should use engagement strategies and institutional support to promote a strong safety culture.

6. Department chairs should promote robust safety collaborations among PIs, researchers, and safety professionals.

7. ACS and other organizations should establish and maintain an incident and near-miss reporting system.

8. Researchers should incorporate hazard analysis into lab notebooks and research processes.

9. Department chairs and PIs should develop lab-centric activities to complement other safety training.

Two new reports from the National Research Council (NRC) and Stanford University offer guidance to the chemistry community for how to improve the safety culture in academic laboratories.

The NRC project looked at current safety practices and attitudes in academic chemistry labs; behavioral science; and safety experience in aviation, health care, industrial research facilities, and the nuclear industry. The resulting report has recommendations for how institutions can better integrate safety into research practices.

“I think that all of us who study a discipline for our whole lives tend to think that our discipline is unique in so many different respects,” says H. Holden Thorp, the NRC committee chair and provost at Washington University in St. Louis. Nevertheless, experience in other fields can help chemists address potential hazards in research labs, says Thorp, who is also a chemistry professor.

The American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, helped sponsor the NRC study. The report is available at

The Stanford report—an internal study intended to assess the institution’s current safety culture—provides recommendations for how to improve that culture.

The Stanford project included open meetings with stakeholders, comments submitted online, a survey, and detailed interviews with researchers. The lab research community tends to be very data-driven, so it was important to have a robust assessment, says Robert M. Waymouth, one of three cochairs of the project and a professor of chemistry. The Stanford report, reviewed by C&EN, will be available at

Both studies outline the importance of different roles and leadership in various groups: administrators, principal investigators, bench researchers, and safety professionals. Defining safety roles will help institutions stress the importance of accountability across the board, says Mary Beth C. Koza, director of the environment, health, and safety department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The reports “do a great job of condensing the current situation and describing where we want to go,” says John B. Asbury, a chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University who has been leading an effort to improve safety in his department. “The path to get there is less clear. We really need to have a discussion of best practices that people have found for getting there.”

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Krishna Prasad.K.N.  (August 9, 2014 2:43 AM)
Promoting safety culture should be a must. Before any one is permitted even to enter a laboratory, the person should be given a preliminary/basic safety training - mainly dont's. Soon,thereafter, is the next step: a rigorous General safety training. This is to be followed by specific training to work in his/her field. This includes a thorough knowledge of the hazardous properties of the chemicals involved- inputs,outputs and runaways- in the course of the lab work. Finally, first aid. Also, insist on "buddy" system. Each person's safety is the concern of the buddy also.

Krishna Prasad.K.N.; Chemical engineer; HSE Consultant and Trainer.
Ron Myers  (August 9, 2014 7:39 PM)
Academic labs should hold unannounced safety inspections, checking for safe practices and noting safety problems as appropriate. Many chemical companies conduct such lab inspections, and lab safety is typically included as a factor in assessing annual employee performance. In academic settings, the professor in charge of a group is the employee whose performance evaluation would be influenced by lab safety. Remember that lab safety also means a lab that has good housekeeping practice; a neat, clean and organized lab is typically a safer lab. As others have stated, mandatory and ongoing safety training should be required. All students and professors must know how to properly use fire extinguishers and operate eyewash fountains, etc. Regular safety meetings (mandatory attendance) within lab groups or within the entire chemistry or science department should also be held to further discuss and reinforce safe lab practices.
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