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Creating Safety Cultures In Academic Institutions

by Robert H. Hill Jr.
June 11, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 24

Robert H. Hill Jr., Chair, Committee on Chemical Safety
Credit: Courtesy of Robert H. Hill Jr.
A photo of Robert H. Hill Jr.
Credit: Courtesy of Robert H. Hill Jr.

Laboratory and chemical safety are primary concerns of our chemical enterprise. Laboratory incidents in the academic community within the recent past have drawn the attention and scrutiny of the media, federal investigators, and public prosecutors—and these incidents and their impact have greatly concerned many in academia.

The ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) recognized the need to assist our academic colleagues in their efforts to build and reinforce strong safety cultures. Seeking to establish a broad collaboration, CCS formed the Safety Culture Task Force with members of CCS, the ACS Society Committee on Education, the Committee on Professional Training, the Younger Chemists Committee, and the Division of Chemical Health & Safety (CHAS).

The task force identified elements of strong safety cultures, topics and resources for laboratory and chemical safety education, and recommendations for building and enhancing safety cultures in academic institutions.

The task force produced a report, “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions,” that CCS approved at the spring 2012 ACS national meeting in San Diego. Because of the high interest in this report, the final draft has been posted on the CCS website at The draft version will remain there until the final publication becomes available early this summer.

The report lists seven essential elements that are needed to support a robust safety culture.

Leadership and management: Responsibilities and accountability for safety must be clearly defined, from the highest levels of the administration down through schools and departments to individual faculty and staff. Leading by example is a requirement of all members of an institution—especially faculty.

Teaching laboratory and chemical safety: All chemists need an in-depth knowledge of laboratory and chemical safety. They should acquire this safety knowledge and training continually throughout their years of education. The report suggests some 80 safety topics that should be taught, and it emphasizes teaching critical thinking skills in laboratory and chemical safety.

Strong safety attitudes, awareness, and ethics: Strong, positive attitudes about safety require long-term efforts through continuous emphasis on safety. Teaching safety is an ethical responsibility. The concept of a “safety ethic” reflects the proper attitude of valuing safety.

Learning from laboratory incidents: Studies of incidents capture interest and teach lessons about safety. Institutions should implement a system of reporting and investigating incidents.

Establishing collaborative relationships: Safety culture requires close, trusting collaborations among all members of the academic community including faculty members; administrative staff; students; postdoctoral scholars; environmental, health, and safety staff; and public emergency responders.

Promoting and communicating safety: Demonstrating safety practices through personal example and recognizing positive safety behaviors are important ways to promote safety. Safety should be reinforced through continuous and diverse efforts.

Strong safety programs require funding: All strong safety programs require investment of substantial effort along with adequate and continuous funding by institutional administrations. Identifying the departments and personnel responsible for safety is a critical step in determining budgetary needs.

All of these elements are essential and necessary in building a strong safety culture, but perhaps most important are leadership and safety education. Faculty and staff should accept responsibility for safety and lead by example. The curriculum should include comprehensive laboratory and chemical safety education for undergraduates throughout their learning experience. Those teaching and conducting research in laboratories should also receive education in laboratory and chemical safety.

The report lists 17 recommendations that serve as guidelines for building strong safety cultures. These recommendations were derived from the essential elements that are found in strong safety cultures. As academic institutions implement these measures, strong safety cultures should evolve that ensure safety is an integral part of the teaching and research programs.

To further discussions on academic safety, CCS and CHAS are cosponsoring a symposium titled “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions” at the August 2012 ACS national meeting in Philadelphia. The symposium will feature 18 presentations with panel discussions and audience participation. Please share your input and ideas to strengthen laboratory and chemical safety at

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


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