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Taking Safety Seriously

by Rudy M. Baum
April 11, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 15

The "Letters" pages of C&EN are an important forum for readers of the magazine to express their thoughts on a wide range of subjects. Readers weigh in on our coverage of controversial topics, offer additional insights on a story that has appeared in the magazine, and raise issues of importance to chemists and chemistry.

We receive, on average, 20 to 30 letters to the editor each week. I make the final selection of letters that will appear in the magazine. In doing so, I take a number of factors into consideration, including whether the letter is interesting, makes a compelling argument, and is relevant to our readers. When we receive a large number of letters on a single, often controversial topic, the ratio of letters pro and con on the subject that we publish reflects the ratio of letters we received.

Sometimes, in the rush of producing a weekly magazine, I make a mistake in selecting a letter for publication. Such was the case in our Feb. 7 issue, when I decided to publish a letter on lab safety from G. David Mendenhall. The letter inappropriately made light of the actions of a safety officer in a university chemistry department.

C&EN has already published a letter from Dennis C. Hendershot in response to the Mendenhall letter (March 7, page 4). In this week's issue, we carry three more letters on this subject: one from Russ Phifer, Neal Langerman, Jim Kapin, and Harry Elston, representing the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Health & Safety (CHAS); one from Carolyn J. Sampson, an analytical chemist who also serves as a chemical hygiene officer; and one from Scott Berger, director of the Center for Chemical Process Safety of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (see page 4).

These letters make a number of excellent points. Phifer, Langerman, Kapin, and Elston capture the central message: ";Everyone in the chemical enterprise has a responsibility to ensure that inappropriate behavior is corrected," they write. ";Anyone, even a well-qualified safety professional, can err in responding to an incident or a near miss; when this occurs, the safety of the chemical enterprise is best served through correction, not intimidation or blame. When correcting someone, we must recognize that the medium by which the message is delivered will affect the audience's willingness to accept the message. A positive, respectful approach invariably accomplishes more than a heavy-handed response."

Berger writes that he has worked with hundreds of safety officials in his career and notes that ";they are professionals whose primary concern is in making sure that the other chemists and chemical engineers they work with go home at the end of the day as healthy as they arrive." Berger cites three free resources that are available for learning more about the subject.

C&EN has a long commitment to fostering safe practices in chemical laboratories. The magazine has for decades published ";Safety Letters" from readers pointing out issues of chemical safety that have come to light from experience in the laboratory (see, for example, Feb. 28, page 8). Often, these experiences reveal an issue that is not covered in the literature on, for example, a particular chemical. Before C&EN publishes such a letter, it is reviewed for accuracy and relevance by a representative from CHAS or the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS). (The more than 50 Safety Letters published since 1993 can be accessed online at

C&EN has also had a long-running conversation with CHAS and CCS about photographs that appear in C&EN. Last year, we published an ACS Comment by Kenneth P. Fivizzani, then the chair of CCS, on this subject (Nov. 29, 2004, page 33). C&EN's policy is not to use photographs in our stories that were taken in a laboratory in which someone appears to be doing chemistry without adequate eye protection. Fivizzani's comment urged chemists always to wear proper eye protection when in the laboratory, including when posing for photographs.

Handled improperly, many chemicals and many chemical reactions pose serious hazards. Safe laboratory practices are an essential component of the practice of chemistry, a component I have noticed that is sometimes taken more seriously by industrial than by academic chemists. It is good to be reminded that safety must be the number one priority in every lab.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.




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