Incentives for Academic Chemical Safety

Hi ChemJobber,

Your suggestions are great! I expanded on them in my post, suggesting methods of prodding. But as you concluded, the problem with policy is that it often makes me I wonder: are these too pie-in-the-sky?! Will they ever work? But I think policies are where students also can “take back the lab”, so to say. In having conversations about improve chemical laboratory safety makes them more aware perhaps of the deficiencies in their own lab.

I looked into the C&EN article that one of your comments referred to; on Yale’s changes in machine shop policies after Dufault died when her hair was caught in a lathe back in April 2011. Yale has implemented a lot of really great policies such as a hierarchical system of users and a defined buddy system. But what I find most valuable is that they decided to make their policies public so that other schools could implement them and provide feedback on what worked and what didn’t work as each campus is unique. A forum and discussion about policies is probably one of the best ways to formulate policy as well as a means for researchers to be reminded that accidents do happen and the best way to keep them from being lethal are to know how to be smart and quick.

ACS-Approved Institutions Requiring a Safety Practicum
Along the lines of knowing how to react, I like your idea about developing modules that have students learn to identifying a dangerous situation and discuss the appropriate way to step in. Everyday, we place an exorbitant amount of trust in our labmates. I trust that they will know what do if I happen to get into trouble, and I trust that they are cautious and aware of the hazards of their own chemistry.  In order to make sure that safety courses/modules are consistent and well covered, I would find a means to have them accredited and mandated. Perhaps to have a safety practices practicum be a part of the curriculum for an ACS-approved degree in chemistry. Universities do love to tout their ACS-approved degrees. ACS can say: “we will take it away if you don’t have a means of creating a culture that Safety is Important”. Funding: If it gets picked up as a requirement for accreditation, I can see it being funded through education initiatives. These would also fund activities such as Safety Fairs.

Screenshot of JoVE video: Microarray Analysis for Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Publishing Videos of Excellent Safety Techniques
Another great teaching avenue for chemical safety and proper preps would be to publish in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVe).  Here is a chance for a publication! After watching a few of the videos, this seems like a wonderful way to show the handling of a hazardous or (even difficult) procedures in the context of actual research that was carried out for a publication. These are peer reviewed journal articles that are presented in video format in order to bridge the complexity of translating what’s actually done at the bench into a written prep. From my quick perusal, there does not seem to be too many chemistry related videos, only lots and lots of biology/biochemistry related contributions (none of them are particularly dangerous procedures).  Plus, it is dogma that publication=funding, right? There is a potential incentive. If a video of me carrying out the prep accommodated my publication, you’d bet I’d make sure I had good technique.

But a video publication speaks to something that we have not mentioned or discussed yet, is there is room to incentivize safety? We have talked about the difficulty in forcing PIs to be responsible for proper mentoring, but what if there was a means for them receive an award if say, they submitted to the JoVE, created a video on how to properly handle the synthesis of azide derivatives, and it was viewed over 1,000 times.  Could it turn into an H-index-type measurement on safety and technique?

Authoritative Environmental, Health and Safety Personnel
Another policy suggestion would be to employ safety personnel who have the authority to fine or demerit laboratories. These individuals would be trained and accredited, perhaps by ACS and hired by the University, to audit laboratories and assess safety. Perhaps TTU modified its organization structure so that the Environmental, Health and Safety Director now reports to the Vice President for Research who also oversees the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair and PIs, as a means of increasing the authority and leverage of EH&S personnel.  One can only hope. Funding: Well, we technically already have this personnel, they just don’t seem to have a lot of authority over departments, and it does not seem any amount of funding can change this. It would have to be the University’s mandate that laboratories be audited and those audits taken seriously.

Perhaps one suggestion of mine is a bit out of the box (JoVE), but after watching a few of the high quality videos, I realized that for those who don’t get the proper mentoring, videos like these have the opportunity to be invaluable in teaching proper chemical technique and handling of hazardous reagents.

Best,
STEM_Wonk

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