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Lab Safety

Dow Chemical Teams Up With Universities On Laboratory Safety

Partnership brings practices from industry to academia

by Jyllian Kemsley
October 29, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 44

Credit: Dow
Dow glassworker Tim Drier demonstrates how to use a polariscope to reveal stress in a three-necked flask during UCSB’s site visit.
A man in safety goggles holds an instrument with a large screen against a piece of glassware in a laboratory.
Credit: Dow
Dow glassworker Tim Drier demonstrates how to use a polariscope to reveal stress in a three-necked flask during UCSB’s site visit.

Industrial researchers run their labs with much more attention to safety than do academic researchers, or so holds conventional wisdom. Dow Chemical is now tackling that disparity head-on in a pilot safety collaboration with chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science departments at the University of Minnesota (UMN), Pennsylvania State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Part of Dow’s mission is to support research at universities, both to develop new technologies and to ensure a strong workforce pipeline, William F. Banholzer, Dow’s chief technology officer, said in an April 30 statement announcing the program with UMN. To that end, the pilot safety program “leverages our strength in laboratory safety, which is a continuing challenge for universities everywhere,” Banholzer said. A Dow analysis of 2010 Occupational Safety & Health Administration injury and illness data shows that colleges, professional schools, and universities had 2.2 injuries per 100 workers that year. Dow had only 0.33 injuries. (The numbers are not specific to research laboratories.)

The Dow-university safety partnerships so far have all followed a similar pattern. Dow approached UMN first in the spring, then Penn State shortly after. UCSB engaged in July. Each university formed a safety team composed principally of students and postdocs from the different departments involved. That’s because students and postdocs are the ones actually working in labs, says William B. Tolman, chair of the chemistry department at UMN. Tolman adds that the students at UMN have risen to the challenge and taken responsibility for the safety program and for driving it forward. “It’s awesome and exactly what you want as chair of a department,” Tolman says.

Dow representatives toured the schools and met with focus groups of students and postdocs, faculty, and safety staff on each campus to understand the current safety culture. Then, teams from each school visited Dow’s site in Midland, Mich., for two days of workshops and facility tours, with all expenses covered by Dow. Returning from Midland, the teams from each school set priorities and plans to improve the laboratory safety culture at their institutions.

The three universities are among those benefiting from a program Dow announced last year: The company is investing $250 million over 10 years to support research at 11 academic institutions (C&EN, Oct. 10, 2011, page 9). The new safety effort is independent of that program but builds on the relationships established between Dow and the departments, says Pankaj Gupta, senior strategy leader for research and development at Dow.

When Dow representatives visited the schools, “housekeeping was the number one issue we found,” Gupta says. Dow representatives generally thought that containers were inadequately labeled and that labs were cluttered with old chemicals and equipment. The number two concern was people not wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), such as the correct gloves or eye or face protection.

The workshops Dow held in Midland included a mix of seminar-style presentations to discuss high-level principles, such as the need to assess hazards when planning reactions, coupled with lab walk-throughs to see Dow chemistry research in action, says Lori Seiler, associate director for environmental health and safety in R&D at Dow. Dow also developed workshops on topics such as how to pick appropriate gloves or inspect glassware for flaws.

Tolman went along on the visit to Dow, and he found himself “sort of stunned” by the cleanliness and neatness of the labs, even when it was clear there was a lot of chemistry going on, he says. The other thing that stood out for him was the level of attention and commitment to safety exhibited by the Dow team, which included Gupta, Banholzer, and UMN alumni. “They didn’t sound like they were just spouting platitudes,” Tolman says. “They live it and believe it.”

UMN chemistry graduate student Kathryn A. McGarry’s reaction was similar to Tolman’s. What hit home for her was the high level of safety awareness that seemed to permeate the culture at Dow, she says.

Those reactions are informing the projects that UMN’s safety team is now executing. The team started by coming up with a list of 10 guidelines for safe lab operation, including wearing basic PPE, properly storing chemicals and waste, and both writing standard operating procedures and conducting an annual review of them.

From there, the team developed posters for hallways and signs for labs to promote the guidelines. Additionally, co-opting a Dow idea, the team put together a video demonstrating the effectiveness of different forms of eye protection by splashing colored water on balloon “heads.”

Credit: UMN
A UMN poster illustrates the guidelines for safe lab operation.
A UMN poster titled “10 Guidelines for a SAFER lab” illustrates the guidelines for safe lab operation.
Credit: UMN
A UMN poster illustrates the guidelines for safe lab operation.

The UMN safety team is also encouraging all individual lab safety officers to hold “safety moments” at the start of group meetings, so they or other group members can discuss questions or problems specific to the group’s research. In her group’s meetings so far, McGarry has gone over the new lab signage and proper PPE.

Tolman and his chemical engineering counterpart, Frank S. Bates, also instituted safety moments at the beginning of department seminars. Tolman held the first one in his department, for which he assembled a slide show of good safety practices that he observed around the department. Before a subsequent seminar, McGarry’s adviser, Christopher J. Douglas, talked about how people in his lab wear yellow armbands when they’re doing something particularly dangerous, as a visual cue to lab mates to be aware of what’s happening.

Going forward, UMN chemistry and chemical engineering will have a cleanup week to declutter the labs and biannual student-led lab inspections. The safety team, whose budget is currently $5,000, is developing its own version of Dow’s “safe operating cards,” which researchers post on hoods with basic information about who’s running a reaction, what it is, and its hazards. Additionally, the team wants to develop safety training workshops on topics such as handling pyrophoric materials or cryogens. Also on the agenda is incident or near-miss reporting so people in the department can better learn from others’ experiences.

Penn State chemistry researchers’ reactions to their visit to Midland were slightly different from those of their UMN counterparts. Chemistry professor John B. Asbury’s big takeaway was that Dow has created a program in which even people who don’t have good safety awareness can still be safe. Dow managers have “identified what are the critical thinking processes to ensure that people are safe, codified that, and trained their people to follow those procedures,” Asbury says. He points in particular to Dow’s requirement that researchers discuss experiment hazards with colleagues during experiment planning.

Asbury was also struck by the positive reinforcement program Dow uses to promote safe lab behavior. Small rewards can be things such as gift cards for gas. Larger rewards include group trips to attend local Minor League Baseball games, with seats in Dow’s box at Dow Diamond.

Graduate student Robert Stewart noted the integration of safety with chemistry at Dow and how it’s seen as an essential, integral part of research rather than as an additional, separate burden. Conversations with Dow employees also made it clear to Stewart that Dow won’t fire employees if their science fails, but the company will fire employees who don’t work safely, he says.

Unlike UMN, where the departments of chemistry and of chemical engineering and materials science are in the same college and are working in tandem on their safety program, Penn State chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science are in three different colleges and are starting from different safety cultures. Going forward, each department has prioritized different projects to pilot.

The chemistry department has begun a near-miss incident reporting system to serve as a learning tool. Safety officers prepare and submit forms to Asbury, who ensures that all identifying details are removed before he posts them on an internal department website. One recent report documented how a student tried to fix a dripping faucet and in the process created a worse leak. Chemistry personnel caught the problem quickly so it caused no significant damage. The lesson: Don’t try to fix something yourself, instead call the facilities manager. So far, Asbury says, feedback on the reports has been positive.

Other efforts that students are working on include publishing a monthly safety newsletter, the Stall Street Journal, to be posted in bathrooms. It will include announcements, highlight some learning experiences, and cover various safety resources and whom to contact with questions or problems. Longer term, Penn State’s safety team will develop its own safe operation cards and may start doing lab inspections. Asbury is also contemplating how to reward safe behavior. Overall, the chemistry department has devoted more than $2,000 to the effort so far.

For its part, the Penn State chemical engineering department is instituting a colored labeling system akin to one that Dow uses. Chemicals transferred out of their original containers will get a green, yellow, orange, or red label, for nonhazardous up to highly hazardous materials (waste is labeled separately).

And materials science and engineering is instituting safety moments before department seminars, akin to UMN’s. That department was already a campus leader for laboratory safety, says Kate Lumley-Sapanski, assistant director of environmental health and safety at Penn State. Even before the interactions with Dow, it had its own Stall Wall newsletter, monthly student-led lab inspections, and annual required safety training.

UCSB started working with Dow several months after the other two schools, so it is not as far along in its program. UCSB chemical laboratory safety officer Alessandro F. Moretto worked as a medicinal chemistry researcher in the pharmaceutical industry before moving to the university last year, but he still learned a thing or two from visiting Dow. “I’ve worked for three different large companies, and Dow far exceeded them all” with its safety program, Moretto says. “They’re very rigorous in documenting their hazard analysis.”

Postdoctoral researcher Vishal Patil and graduate student Donald Wenz were both impressed by what they saw as the empowerment of lower-level employees to enforce safe lab behavior. “Even the lowliest tech has the power to tell a senior person to put on a lab coat,” Wenz says. “I think that if you can establish that kind of safety culture in every lab, it’s a tremendous boost to safety to have everyone actively watching out for everyone else.”

UCSB’s initial push is communication and awareness campaigns using posters and newsletters, as well as safety moments, Moretto says. Next up will be improving training, implementing hazard analysis as part of experiment planning, and near-miss reporting. So far, Moretto has budgeted $650 for initial printing costs.

The hazard analysis component will be facilitated by software that the University of California is developing as part of an agreement with the Los Angeles County district attorney to establish standard operating procedures for hazardous chemicals used in laboratory research (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34). Researchers will input their reaction conditions, and the software will tell them whether basic chemical safety principles suffice or whether they need to read or develop a standard operating procedure with more detailed safety instructions, says Kenneth Smith, laboratory safety manager for the UC system. He hopes to have a prototype of the software done by January 2013, with full adoption sometime later that year.

It’s not just the schools that have benefited from the interactions between Dow and the universities. Dow has changed one of its practices as well, Gupta says. Dow recruiters are now asking questions about safety in on-campus interviews, looking for people who have taken leadership positions or tried to emphasize safety in their own work.

Going forward, Dow plans to continue meeting regularly with the universities through at least the end of this year to talk through ideas and share experiences. Depending on where things stand then, the company may stick with the original three or expand to other institutions. The company is working on converting its on-site workshops into digital form so they’re readily available to schools, Gupta says.


The challenge for the schools, everyone agrees, is ensuring that all the effort actually changes laboratory culture so that safety becomes integral to research, and not allowing the effort to die out as the initial rush of enthusiasm fades. Ensuring that departments manage safety team turnover so that veteran knowledge gets passed on to new members will be key, as will committed and sustained leadership from department chairs and deans, Seiler and Gupta say.

Long-term sustainability “is a critical issue,” acknowledges UMN’s Bates. If the programs can take root, though, he thinks staff and faculty support will ensure that a true culture change is effected—a change that’s deep and permanent. “They’re responsible for oversight,” he says, and making safe work practices inherent to laboratory work will ease that burden.


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