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Lessons from the safety summits

by Ralph Stuart, Chair, Committee on Chemical Safety
July 6, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 26

 

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Credit: Colin Burdick
Ralph Stuart

In 2016, the American Chemical Society Board of Directors voted to include safety as a core value of the society. This was not a decision without controversy. For example, the strategic plan summary that year reported that some members of the society felt that safety competed with productivity in the chemistry enterprise. This observation provided the opportunity for candid discussions and reflections around this question.

For this reason, then-ACS President Peter Dorhout asked the Committee on Chemical Safety to partner with the Division of Chemical Health and Safety and the newly created ACS safety program to organize an ACS Safety Summit in 2018. The goal of this summit was to help the society connect its safety stakeholders and translate the core value of safety into an action plan that helps the society and its members bring this value to life.

Since then, annual safety summits have become an integral part of implementing the society’s core value of “professionalism, safety, and ethics.” The follow-up summits addressed chemical safety education and chemical safety communication, which had been identified as ACS strategic directions for safety programs at the first summit.

These summits gathered a number of ACS stakeholders, including members of ACS governance, technical divisions, and staff, along with outside experts. Experts have been recruited from, among other organizations, the US National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Science Teaching Association, as well as a number of industrial corporations. These organizations are recognized leaders in advocating for professionalism, safety, and ethics in the sciences. The summit reports and follow-up symposia have enabled society-wide conversations about safety and led to ACS projects related to different aspects of chemical safety. Leadership for the summit follow-up effort is provided by the Committee on Chemical Safety.

We have learned three key lessons from these summits:

Annual safety summits have become an integral part of implementing the society’s core value of professionalism, safety, and ethics.

The ACS Governance and Executive Leadership Team enthusiastically support this work. Four current, past, and future ACS presidents, as well as ACS’s chief executive officer and its vice president for scientific advancement, participated in all these discussions.

Support for chemical safety practices is an ongoing partnership between ACS governance, technical divisions, and staff. All these stakeholders bring specific skills and resources to this discussion. The goal of the summits is to strengthen connections among stakeholders and plan new activities to position ACS as a leader in laboratory safety.

Important strategic partnership opportunities are available with other scientific organizations in addressing all elements of ACS’s connected values of professionalism, safety, and ethics. Leveraging these partnerships will strengthen ACS as a scientific leader.

During the 2020 safety summit, participants identified key opportunities for ACS:

Strengthening partnerships between ACS’s technical safety groups and various ACS programs, which would open the door for collaborations such as the newly launched ACS Chemical Health & Safety journal and the safety chapter included in the updated ACS Guide to Scholarly Communication.

Enhancing safety communication channels, which would help ACS better understand and reflect the community’s needs and concerns related to chemical safety, both in its technical and cultural aspects.

Subsequent discussions identified a variety of additional topics that ACS can champion using its current chemical safety resources. This list was organized into four areas of ACS engagement: chemical safety education materials; identification of best safety practices for chemistry research and discovery; support for environmental health and safety professionals serving chemical laboratories, pilot plants, and industry; and chemical safety information and advice for the public and lawmakers.

The enthusiastic interest and participation in the safety summits by ACS stakeholders and leadership demonstrate the value of this work. As we review the results of these discussions, both in the Committee on Chemical Safety and within the broader community, we see that much progress can come from these strategic discussions. The resources listed at www.acs.org/safety are important assets to the society and the chemistry enterprise as a whole, and the ongoing development and use of these resources will be catalyzed by the future work of similar summits.

For these reasons, I recommend that this tradition of annual summits be continued, either in person or virtually, into the foreseeable future to track progress. These meetings have proved invaluable in providing strategic direction for the Committee on Chemical Safety and ACS as a whole, particularly in the context of the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, as this is my last year as chair of the Committee on Chemical Safety, I would like to thank ACS leadership for their support of the committee. Chemical safety is a community effort, and I am proud of ACS’s achievements in moving this work forward. If you have any questions or suggestions for future ACS safety summits, please direct them to safety@acs.org.

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

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