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RAMPing up safety education: The time is now

by Bettyann Howson, Chair, ACS Committee on Chemical Safety
May 2, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 18

Credit: Courtesy of Bettyann Howson
Photo of Bettyann Howson.
Credit: Courtesy of Bettyann Howson

Laboratory work is a critical component of chemistry education. Just as critical is the need for students to develop a solid foundation in the principles and procedures of laboratory safety. As students proceed through the levels of education, their understanding and practice of safety should progress and strengthen. It is of the utmost importance that students make safety a priority and create a culture that reflects their understanding of safety issues and leads them to make good decisions while increasing their skills and knowledge in chemistry.

But when does an individual’s education in chemical safety really begin? We assume that graduates with a bachelor of science degree or advanced degree, who truly understand the importance of safety, began their safety education at the secondary level and that it continued through their undergraduate and graduate studies. However, this is a generalization.

Most chemistry students are provided with basic safety information and training at the beginning of each course, but this information often consists of a series of “dos and don’ts” followed by a safety contract requiring a signature. Although these are important components of chemical safety, they promote a culture of compliance rather than one of safety. Effective safety education must become an integral part of chemistry curricula at all levels.

The Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) has been leading an effort to strengthen the culture of safety in educational institutions. In response to the numerous reported incidents in academic laboratories and during demonstrations that resulted in either serious injury or death, CCS has issued numerous publications and safety alerts, among them “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions” (2012) and “Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories” (2015). Both these resources emphasize the importance of integrating safety education throughout the entire chemistry curriculum, where principles of safety are taught over time (rather than during onetime safety trainings) and repeatedly revisited at higher levels of complexity as students’ skills progress.

Effective safety education must become an integral part of chemistry curricula at all levels.

During discussions around safety culture, educators often express a concern that even though most faculty and instructors may have a general idea of what chemical safety is and what to teach, they need more specific guidance on what to expect of students. In response to this need, CCS established the Task Force for Safety Education Guidelines (TFSEG).

TFSEG, which consists of representatives from ACS committees, divisions, and advisory boards as well as university and high school faculty, has developed two documents: one for secondary educators and one for undergraduate and postbaccalaureate faculty, staff, and students. These Safety Education Guidelines are currently in their final drafts and are expected to be released during the upcoming ACS national meeting in Philadelphia in August.

The guidelines are organized very differently from most current chemical safety instructional materials. Rather than being grouped around specific topics such as flammables and corrosives, they are organized around the concept of RAMP, an acronym for the four principles of safety:

Recognize the hazard.
▸ Assess the risk.
▸ Minimize the risk.
▸ Prepare for emergencies.

The guidelines also include student learning outcomes that clearly state the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and competencies in the area of chemical safety that students are expected to acquire as they progress with their education.

Thinking about chemical safety in this manner helps both the instructor and the student focus on the underlying chemical principles of a potential hazard and take appropriate actions to either avoid or minimize the risks from that hazard. This is safety education.

The guidelines will provide an initial framework for teaching safety concepts, but at the heart of safety education is the teacher. As a role model, every teacher sets the tone that students will follow. Although it is important for students to be trained in safety accommodations, such as knowing the layout of the lab and location of emergency equipment, it is also important to know the safety expectations of the teacher. Elementary and middle school educators must be educated in practices and procedures that develop a safety culture within the classroom at an early age. Integrating RAMP into the curriculum at all levels will serve as a vehicle to promote this new approach to safety education.

Additionally, teachers must join together to make their environment a safer place in which to work, teach, and learn.

Opening a department meeting with a “safety moment” or discussing an incident that became a “teachable moment” can connect educators and serve as a constant source for safety refreshers. CCS will continue to provide support to science educators and recognizes that diverse and flexible approaches to safety education will be used by each institution to ensure that safety education is an essential element of all chemistry research and education. Our goal is to make safety a way of life in the classroom and in the lab. Please send your comments to

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


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