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Creating a strong safety culture

by Bettyann Howson, Chair, ACS Committee on Chemical Safety
September 11, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 36

Credit: Courtesy of Bettyann Howson
Credit: Courtesy of Bettyann Howson

My 10-year service on the Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) has been such a meaningful journey. Working with this dedicated group of American Chemical Society volunteers and having served my past three years as the chair has been a highlight of my career.

I grew up with a strong safety mind-set. My father, an industrial chemist, taught me that life involves many hazards and it is up to us to think critically about them, take precautions, and if they happen, respond in ways that minimize harm to ourselves and others.

I integrated this strong safety culture into my high school chemistry teaching. Well-designed, hands-on laboratory activities that develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills while exposing students to reactions, materials, and equipment in a lab setting is essential to the learning process.

As I developed my teaching skills, I moved away from traditional lecturing and cookbook-style labs to more active learning strategies involving inquiry-based activities. Students became independent, self-confident learners as they increased their laboratory skills. Making sure that my students were not only safe in my chemistry course but that they also learned to integrate chemical safety into their work was always important for me.

Early on, safety education was limited to discussing the location of eyewash stations and showers, fume hoods, ventilation systems, and fire extinguishers. I reviewed emergency procedures and personal protective equipment, performed select safety demonstrations, and served as a role model.

At my high school, I was known by students and administrators as demanding and a bit of a pain about adhering to safety standards. However, I always knew that good chemistry was safe chemistry, and I worked very hard to instill these values in my students.

In 2009, my fellow committee members and I were devastated to learn the tragic news that a young researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, died from injuries she received while working with the pyrophoric fluid tert-butyllithium (C&EN, Aug. 3, 2009, page 29). Additional accidents in educational settings followed, and the committee realized that ACS must become the leader in promoting a strong and positive safety culture.

We have come a long way in the past 10 years.

Fast-forward to 2017. Safety is now a core value of the society, and a full-time staff position has been added to manage ACS safety programs. Beginning this year, ACS Journals initiated a new safety reporting requirement, which states that authors must “emphasize any unexpected, new, and/or significant hazards or risks associated with the reported work.”

The newly printed 8th edition of “Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories: Best Practices for First- and Second-Year University Students” provides students with an overview of the key issues related to the safe use of chemicals in the first two years of an undergraduate program in chemistry. Its content shifts from safety based primarily on rules to integrating safety through the four RAMP principles (recognize the hazards, assess the risks of the hazards, minimize the risks of the hazards, and prepare for emergencies).

To assist teachers and faculty members with integrating these principles and procedures of laboratory safety into their students’ chemistry education, the committee published “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools” and “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Academic Institutions.” The committee hopes that these guidelines will help educators develop, enhance, and assess the safety education of their students.

To care about safety and develop a safety ethic, students need to learn the “why” behind safety. CCS in conjunction with Corporation Associates and the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety (CHAS) received society funds to finalize the Student eLearning Project in the area of chemical safety. Successful completion of this online program states that undergraduate and graduate students have a basic knowledge of chemical laboratory safety, which is fundamental to a career in chemistry.

Members of CCS and CHAS developed two public policy statements regarding safety. “Safety in the Chemistry Enterprise” is targeted at regulators and policy-makers to address the society’s position on laws and regulations concerning chemical safety issues. “Safety Guidelines for the Chemistry Professional: Understanding Your Role and Responsibilities” establishes guidelines for ACS members and other interested parties on behalf of the community of safety professionals in ACS. It outlines prudent expectations for the safety roles and responsibilities of chemistry professionals and their organizations.

We have come a long way in the past 10 years. We must continue educating in all areas of chemical safety. I am encouraged that most people are receptive to the implementation of increased safety education practices and want more assistance. We must begin developing useful tools to carry out the execution of RAMP principles in schools and undergraduate programs.

As pioneers in safety education, it is time to come together and begin developing these much-needed tools. We have planted the seeds and will eventually harvest a culture in which safety is what students do automatically, not something extra they have to do.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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