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Comment: What does empowerment of safety leaders in graduate research look like?

by Samuella Sigmann, chair, ACS Committee on Chemical Safety
November 17, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 38


Image of Samuella Sigmann.
Credit: Appalachian State University
Samuella Sigmann

The American Chemical Society has adopted the RAMP risk management system (recognize hazards, assess risk, minimize risk, prepare for emergencies) to facilitate a shift in chemical safety education away from learning safety rules and toward building safety competencies in risk assessment. I spent time incorporating risk assessment into my classes using this framework before retiring from academia. As a chemical safety educator, I have been truly fortunate to contribute as a subject-matter expert in developing numerous ACS educational safety materials using RAMP. While it was important to build a portfolio of resources, the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) now wants to concentrate on assisting educators with integrating RAMP into their chemistry curricula and academic research.

Laboratory safety teams (LSTs) are grassroots organizations at universities developed by and for research students who want to actively participate in shifting the safety paradigm in their communities. LSTs empower students to take charge of their own safety while working on developing safety leadership skills. The ACS Office of Safety Programs, the Division of Chemical Health and Safety (DCHAS), and CCS are increasing the visibility and growth of LSTs by providing mentorship and leadership experience opportunities for LST leaders.

To thrive and grow, [laboratory safety teams] need opportunities, champions, and mentors.

Student leaders often mention feeling unsafe while working in research laboratories or unsure of their ability to protect themselves. But students may not know what to do because they do not feel empowered to change their laboratory’s safety culture. LSTs provide students with a voice in their own safety. To implement the new safety education paradigm, buy-in from academic communities will be needed—and research students are leading the way with empowered students already establishing at least 20 LSTs at universities around the country.

To thrive and grow, LSTs need opportunities, champions, and mentors. But it’s the peer relationships within the organizational structure that help empower the individuals. In 2018, DCHAS, with support from CCS and the ACS Office of Safety Programs, worked with an LST graduate student to develop and offer the first DCHAS peer-led workshop. “Developing Graduate Student Leadership Skills in Laboratory Safety” outlines the purpose, goals, and benefits of creating LSTs at institutions. Building on the success of the first workshop, students created “RAMP in the Research Lab” to introduce risk management to peers. Both workshops are now offered regularly, and a succession plan and mentorship team are in place to ensure continued success.

The 2022 ACS Presidential Safety Summit brought together stakeholders from industry, academia, and national laboratories to explore the desired chemical safety competencies needed to shorten onboarding time for new hires in industrial careers. LST leaders shared information with industry partners about the LST movement. The movement began as an outgrowth of relationships between industry and academia, such as the Joint Safety Team between Dow and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. A recommendation from the 2022 summit was for ACS to support the LST movement, so ACS partnered with LST leaders to organize the 2023 ACS Presidential Laboratory Safety Teams Summit to uncover tangible ways ACS could support the movement. In early October, stakeholders gathered to develop a better understanding of the current LST landscape and formulate strategies for advancing the movement.

LST leaders organized and facilitated the summit with mentorship from the ACS Office of Safety Programs, CCS, and DCHAS. The group designed summit activities to achieve four goals: define what an LST is and the benefits of having one, identify what LSTs need to get started and thrive, define the partnerships LSTs can have and their value, and enable LSTs to prepare scientists for meeting the requirements of industrial safety standards.

Reports disseminating outcomes of the LST summit will be available on the CCS website at Until then, visit the newly created Laboratory Safety Teams website that ACS has developed with LST leaders at

Empowered LST leaders are now seeking ways to incorporate what they have learned from the summit to improve chemical safety in graduate research, build on successes, and, eventually, fulfill the goal of establishing an LST at every university. As students graduate and begin to infuse the values learned from participating in LSTs into their daily activities, research, teaching, and future careers as chemists, they also wish to find a permanent home to support the movement. ACS can be that home.

Faculty mentors and students interested in learning more about creating an LST or hosting a workshop at their institution can contact

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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