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Safety is always in season

by Laura Pence, District I Director
October 10, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 40

Laura Pence
Credit: Lifetouch
Photo of Laura Pence.
Credit: Lifetouch

As a faculty member at the University of Hartford, back-to-school season at my university provides an annual opportunity for the chemistry department to instill a safety mind-set in students starting from their first day in the lab.

Safety has always been a priority for me. Whether I was a graduate student or running my own research group, I have consistently made it a point to walk my undergraduates through safety procedures and how to respond in an emergency. When I became chair of my school’s chemistry department in 2002, I implemented department-wide safety training at the start of fall, spring, and summer semesters for all laboratory instructors and research students. Those sessions continue today.

Just as becoming department chair widened my perspective beyond my own lab, joining the American Chemical Society’s board of directors this year has provided me with the privilege and responsibility of adopting a more global view of ACS. I have gained an enormous appreciation for the resources available from the active and engaged members of the Committee on Chemical Safety and the Division of Chemical Health & Safety, and I would like to highlight the wealth of information that they can offer.

We should not only be safe as individuals, but we should each contribute energetically and enthusiastically to the safety of the entire community.

The Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) emphasizes that safety must be learned and reinforced throughout the chemical curriculum, not just through a single safety training session. To that end, the committee has recently published “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools”, “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Academic Institutions”, and “Hazard Assessment in Research Laboratories.” The guidelines documents start with basic terminology and learning objectives that should be integrated into the entire process of training new scientists, then advance to the responsibilities of supervisors and researchers. For instance, I tell my students at the first-year undergraduate level that if an incident occurs, they should yell, “Dr. Pence!” and I’ll come handle the situation. My research students, however, should already be solving the problem while they are yelling for me. CCS aids training of both groups of students.

My department has an excellent reputation for safety, and according to the guidelines, we are indeed doing quite well. However, in my experience, even the best organizations continually strive to be a little more thoughtful, a little more aware, and a little safer. The guidelines are a gold mine of ideas to help us all do just that. For example, my advanced lab students will be doing a safety inspection this spring as a result of ideas I found in the CCS resources.

The expanded guidelines document for secondary schools had input from and dovetails effectively with the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, which ACS launched two years ago to support and serve high school teachers of chemistry. CCS should be applauded for putting considerable thought into improving laboratory safety at all levels of chemical training.

When I reflect on my department’s safety training, I realize that too often we send a message to students that we need to behave safely to avoid getting into trouble. “Wear your goggles so you don’t get yelled at.” “Dispose of your waste properly so we don’t get fined.” “No food or drink in the lab so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t shut us down.” Those perspectives cater to the idea that chemists and chemistry make problems, and they instill a culture of compliance rather than a culture of safety. In reality, many of us went into chemistry to solve problems, and being safe is an important component of creating that problem-solution environment. Safety should be a positive identity issue. I am a chemist, so of course I strive to be as safe as I can be.

Being safe chemists requires that every one of us own the responsibility for safety. Safety should not be delegated to a set of rules made by a designated safety officer; it should be the concern and responsibility of every person who works in a lab or is part of a process. For example, in the semester when my co-instructor for an advanced lab class was pregnant, I impressed on the students that it was everyone’s responsibility, not just hers, to make sure that she was not accidentally exposed to hazardous chemicals. We should not only be safe as individuals, but we should each contribute energetically and enthusiastically to the safety of the entire community.

The ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety (CHAS) provides an outstanding example of incorporating safety into the identity of professional chemists. Among its activities is a robust and active e-mail discussion list that allows members to share resources and facilitates community engagement in safety. The division reinforces safety as a first practice rather than as an afterthought.

With the inspiration of CCS and CHAS, shouldn’t each of us own safety as part of our professional identity as chemists?

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



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