Over the past decade, we have witnessed tragic accidents in academic laboratories of chemistry and related sciences, as well as in high school chemistry labs. Subsequent investigations of such laboratory accidents suggest that these incidents are preventable.
Laboratory safety has been the subject of an investigation by the Chemical Safety Board and of studies by the National Research Council, the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities, and the American Chemical Society.
In 2012, the Safety Culture Task Force of the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety issued the report “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions,” which provides guidance, suggestions, examples, and recommendations to help strengthen the safety culture in two- and four-year undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral programs. Despite these and other guidelines that have been issued, incidents continue to happen. What are we missing?
In preparing for this ACS Comment, I scanned lab safety information available on the web, and I was impressed by what I found. Research universities have safety manuals that can be downloaded. Dow Chemical, for example, has short instructional videos covering a broad range of lab activities. And ACS’s Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) Registry contains property information on chemical hazards. The safety gap is not due to a lack of available knowledge. We need to look elsewhere. Do we have a commitment to procedures, training, and education? Do we have strong safety cultures?
Consistent with our mission of advancing the broader chemistry enterprise, and with our goals directed toward improving education and providing information, ACS does promote and support chemical and laboratory safety.
In fact, ACS has had a long-standing commitment to chemical safety. The activities of our Committee on Chemical Safety and our Division of Chemical Health & Safety are prime examples of ACS’s involvement in safety. Moreover, other ACS committees and divisions sponsor their own safety activities and programming.
For up-to-date coverage on laboratory safety, visit C&EN’s Safety Zone (cenblog.org/the-safety-zone), which features regular blog posts on chemical safety issues in academic and industrial research labs as well as in manufacturing.
In addition, C&EN, which is published by ACS, is partnering with Pistoia Alliance, which is developing a collaborative system for sharing precompetitive information about known laboratory hazards that could be shared among member companies and built into their electronic laboratory notebooks to minimize accidents.
The experiences of industry and the conclusions of numerous studies on safety suggest that culture is the principal determinant of safety performance. Do we, across ACS, share this deeply held belief in the importance of safety, and do we act consistently with that belief? What more should ACS be doing to promote safety?
▸ Should ACS Publications and CAS increase safety content and considerations in our publications and online information?
▸ How can we ensure that all ACS content (print, virtual, video) not only conforms to safety best practices, but actively promotes best practices?
▸ How might ACS increase its programming related to safety at our national and regional meetings?
▸ After the Bhopal, India, tragedy, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers launched its Center for Chemical Process Safety; it is now the “go-to,” authoritative source on the subject. Is there an analogous role for ACS in chemical laboratory safety?
▸ Through our Committee on Professional Training, ACS approves bachelor’s degree chemistry programs. Part of this approval involves an examination of safety policies and procedures. All ACS-approved chemistry departments must have a written chemical hygiene plan consistent with Occupational Safety & Health Administration and state standards. Are there ways to measure various institutions’ underlying safety cultures as well?
▸ Can ACS partner with other organizations to promote tools that will help institutions strengthen their safety programs? The Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA) provides its ChemStewards technology to industrial laboratories. Does it have applicability in academic labs?
▸ Should ACS include safety explicitly within its core values? This step will be considered formally by our board during the preparation of our 2017 strategic plan.
There is no shortage of additional actions we can consider. There is no single action by ACS that will transform safety performance in chemistry laboratories. I hope that I have made the case that taking multiple actions together can strengthen the safety culture within ACS and beyond.
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