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Lab Safety

Safety in numbers: Connecting the community to improve lab safety

by Ramesh Durvasula
May 2, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 16

This is a guest editorial by Ramesh Durvasula, information officer for research at Lilly Research Laboratories. It is adapted from the article “Safety in Numbers: Connecting the Community to Improve Lab Safety” published on the CAS Blog ( on March 18, 2021. CAS is a division of the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.

Chemistry can be hazardous, and with many people working in laboratories around the world, the impacts of even minor safety incidents add up. While individual organizations have strategies to prevent accidents, the safety data they gather are not always stored in an easily accessible way for day-to-day use. It’s just not feasible for scientists to read thousands of historical safety reports to find a mention of the compound they are about to use.

People working in labs often see safety incidents happen more than once. I clearly recall an incident that occurred in one lab I worked in (at a previous employer) that triggered a change in our whole approach. To carry out a reaction documented in a patent, trifluoroacetic acid had to be mixed with sodium borohydride to form a suspension of sodium trifluoroacetoxy­borohydride. The NaBH4 powder dissolved rapidly, resulting in an uncontrolled reaction that caused a fire. Pelletized NaBH4 would have reacted less vigorously. The incident was communicated at a departmental safety briefing, but clearly the word had not gotten out, as the same thing occurred again 4 years later. I wondered, “How can we capture safety lessons in a better way to ensure other scientists don’t have to learn the hard way?” After some thought, it became clear that we needed a practical way to integrate historical safety knowledge directly into our everyday laboratory workflows to prevent these types of avoidable incidents. But what would that look like in practical terms?

To close this gap, we needed to create a way to gather safety information and add it to lab processes without requiring additional burdensome steps for chemists. There were three variables that had to be considered: the information being shared, when it was delivered, and how it was delivered.

I am very excited to see this expanded resource come to life. For the first time, we have the technology to readily gather and disseminate safety information from the entire global chemical community.

We analyzed the workflow of our chemists to understand when they needed safety information and how this differed from when they were actually getting it. Typically, our chemists worked by designing a reaction, procuring materials, and then synthesizing the product. It became clear that to be most effective, safety information needed to be provided right before synthesizing the product.

We realized that information from multiple sources, including the safety data sheet and institutional memory, could be fed into the electronic lab notebook (ELN). Then, when a scientist planned to use certain compounds, the system could have a message pop up saying, “Hey, be careful!” and provide relevant guidance, such as double gloving or adding a safety screen. What’s more, the safety department could be notified by email if a chemist was planning to carry out a potentially problematic reaction, so the department could advise on best practices and explore alternatives. Implementing this system eliminated repeat incidents; using the ELN to seamlessly flag safety concerns at the point of synthesis proved to be a successful strategy. This was great news.

Safety is a top priority in all chemistry laboratories for scientists at the bench, their departments, and organizations as a whole. After successfully implementing this system, I wanted to expand the strategy across the whole scientific community so that all chemists could benefit. But for the system to be as effective as possible, more safety information was needed. So I looked to work with an organization that could create a system that all pharmaceutical companies could use to share their safety data. The vision was to create a precompetitive crowdsourcing tool for chemical safety information.

The Pistoia Alliance is a global nonprofit membership organization working to facilitate innovation in life sciences research and development. In 2017, it initiated a pilot of a Chemical Safety Library (CSL), which is based on the system I had previously implemented. The CSL aimed to gather information on safety incidents from across the chemical sector and provide the database to the community for free to help prevent safety incidents. Upon release of the prototype, we discovered intense community interest in this type of data collection. But we also encountered reluctance to contribute incident information to the collection. Reasons varied but included embarrassment, confidentiality concerns, and data-entry complexity. The need was clear, and the more contributors that participated, the greater the impact would be.

To expand the reach of this resource and address the limitations hindering participation, the Pistoia Alliance partnered with CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society that specializes in scientific information solutions, to deliver the new Pistoia Alliance Chemical Safety Library. It was launched in October. CAS, which developed and is hosting the new CSL platform, brings significant information management and technology and security expertise, which allowed this new incarnation of the CSL to address the identified barriers. Data entry has been streamlined and simplified, and users can be confident that the data have been deidentified. The entire database is also available for organizations that want to integrate it for internal use—for example, in an enterprise ELN. A CSL Advisory Panel, made up of representatives from the Pistoia Alliance, CAS, and the wider chemistry community, including academia and industry, also reviews the community entries and advises on CSL policy and system improvements. I am very excited to see this expanded resource come to life. For the first time, we have the technology to readily gather and disseminate safety information from the entire global chemistry community. If we truly come together to crowdsource this collection, we can reduce reaction incidents and make the lab a safer place for tens of thousands of chemists across the world.

The new CAS-hosted version of the CSL has had over 8,000 users from 96 countries since it launched. Check out the CSL at to see how it can help you stay safe. And please don’t stop there. If you have been involved in an incident or near miss, enter it into the CSL to let the world learn from your experience.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of his employer, C&EN, or ACS.


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