Chemical laboratories are not only fertile grounds for uncovering cutting-edge research but an important space in the development of safety practices for lab workers. These “first touches” with safety rules and habits can affect how workers perform the role of administrator for laboratories and facilities in the future. This fact amplifies the impact of recurring accidents and tells us that labs still have a lot of safety concepts to learn and apply to provide adequate protection for their workers. To turn the tide on accidents and their far-reaching ramifications, this article delves into the top 3 ways to enhance safety in laboratory settings.
The culture of safety in chemical laboratories is largely influenced by institutional leaders.
The president, provost, and others in administrative positions dictate the priorities and direction of the academic institution, including the level of investment in a more robust safety culture. That being said, what can these decision-makers do to encourage and participate in a strong commitment to safety?
Setting aside funds for conducting safety training and procuring safety equipment sends the message that safety is a core value in an institution. At the minimum, labs must have appropriate and adequate equipment, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). Laboratory safety signs should also be installed wherever necessary. Most chemical laboratories need emergency showers and eyewash stations. Creating and promoting effective reporting methodologies will encourage open safety communication between principal investigators and department heads. Further down the university hierarchy, junior lab members should receive adequate training, safety skills assessments, and supervision when performing experiments. These practices are especially critical when they will be required to handle dangerous (corrosive, explosive, flammable, etc.) chemicals.
Apart from exercising administrative authority, leaders also have the responsibility to inspire others to adhere to safety practices and ethics. They can do this by:
- not exempting themselves from abiding by safety protocols
- penalizing supervisors for unbecoming behavior (e.g., conducting unsafe practices, promoting a hostile atmosphere, discouraging integrity)
- establishing channels where lab workers from all levels can feel safe to report accidents and questionable practices
- reporting safety issues and statistics in the university
- being accountable for safety in the institution.
When leaders practice transparency, engaging in the same activities that they encourage others to participate in, acknowledging positive growth and learning where it happens, and holding themselves accountable for the actions of those under their authority, they can truly inspire improvements in the institution they serve.
The Spiral Model is a strategic and established method for conducting safety education and training. Employing this methodology can help students correctly identify, assess, and manage hazards in chemical laboratories. When utilizing the Spiral Model, supervisors can facilitate sharing previously learned and employed safety practices among lab personnel. This step is followed by subsequent identification of patterns observed in the various approaches to safety. Finally, supervisors and lab members strengthen correct practices and identify weak or incorrect protocols using existing regulations, fundamental concepts, and/or anecdotal laboratory experiences.
Step 1-2: Sharing and pattern identification-
Preparing a manual that explains how an experiment can be safely conducted is important for the sustainability of safety practices. These documents are typically
- checked and approved by a postdoctoral fellow or the laboratory supervisor,
- detail all the processes and reagents needed to conduct the experiment, and
- contain documents describing the safe handling information for chemicals, or Safety Data Sheets (SDS).
Supervisors can then evaluate these experiment manuals by checking these documents before conducting the relevant experiments, determining whether they are then adequately prepared to oversee lab operations, and gauging the needs of other lab personnel for additional education or retraining. According to the Right to Know Law, it is the responsibility of employers to inform laboratory personnel of the known hazards for chemicals, equipment, and processes going on in a laboratory. This reiterates to laboratory workers that it is their right to consult their supervisors should there be any doubts about the safe conduct of their experiments. Having solidified experiment manuals and other safety training materials and processes gives a laboratory firm grounding to confidently continue the exploration of continual improvement.
As the silver lining to the dark cloud, many safety practices had their beginning in tragic mistakes. In 2009, Sheri Shangji died from organ failure after enduring third-degree burns in a lab fire. The incident has since urged chemical laboratories around the world to review their safety practices. Accidents and near-misses in chemical laboratories can serve as learning opportunities for everyone to assess and improve their safety practices. By analyzing the details of a particular incident, laboratory personnel can innovate more proactive safety measures. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration takes part in this form of learning by publishing investigations into reported laboratory accidents that can serve as case studies for safety discussions within laboratories.
Chemical laboratories are potential hazard hotspots that require the methodical evaluation and execution of safety protocols and training processes. To increase a laboratory’s safety performance supervisors must foster safety leadership and allocate funds for safety equipment and training. Additionally, safety training should build on the existing knowledge and learned practices of laboratory personnel to cement successful practices and weed out inadequate ones. Similarly, laboratories must investigate accidents, both internal and external, to learn from prior mistakes and protect workers from repeating actions that have led to negative consequences.
The SafetyStratus Research Advisory Group (RAG) brings together thought leaders from the global environmental, health, and safety community to promote best practices and provide key insights in the profession and the industries they serve. The Research Advisory Group also advocates, where practical, the intersection of and advances with the use of technology, such as the SafetyStratus enterprise EHS software platform. Group membership consists of representatives from across varied disciplines and market sectors as well as select members of the SafetyStratus team.
The primary objectives of the SafetyStratus RAG partnership are to:
- Build a strategic partnership between EHS practitioners and the SafetyStratus team.
- Provide engaging and practical content to the global EHS community.
- Provide discipline and market feedback specific to SafetyStratus products and services.
While the objectives of the RAG are varied, the primary public-facing outcome will be available through engaging and practical content found on the SafetyStratus resource pages. Various articles, papers, and other valuable resources will be produced and shared as part of an ongoing effort to cultivate a robust community. Ultimately, the SafetyStratus RAG will expand to have a broader reach and provide opportunities for more inclusion by all interested EHS professionals a collaborative community environment.
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American Chemical Society, ACS Joint Board/Council Committee on Chemical Safety. (2012). Creating safety cultures in academic institutions. ACS. https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/about/governance/committees/chemicalsafety/academic-safety-culture-report.pdf
Burke, B., Geronimo, J., Martin, D., Thomas, B., Wall, C. (2002). The Spiral Model. The Commons Library. https://commonslibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Spiral-Model.pdf
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Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (1994, February 9). Hazard Communication. US Department of Labor. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/federalregister/1994-02-09
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). Accident Investigation Search. US Department of Labor. https://www.osha.gov/help/accident-investigation
The National Academy of Sciences. (2014). Safe science: Promoting a culture of safety in academic chemical research. The National Academies Press. https://www.chem.uci.edu/sites/default/files/safety/SafeScience.pdf