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Cautious optimism as society names lab safety a core value

What defines a scientific professional? Subject matter expertise and dedication to excellence are two traits that scientists everywhere would likely endorse. Last December, the American Chemical Society (ACS) officially added another critical item to that list when it made safety one of the society’s “core values.” Such high recognition by the world's largest scientific society, speaking to and for its nearly 157,000 members, argues strongly that everyone involved in the scientific enterprise should recognize lab safety as essential to who they are as professionals. Beyond that, it suggests the corollary that scientists should regard safety incidents that result from bad safety practice not as “accidental” bad luck, but as violations of a fundamental professional standard that not only carry professional and reputational consequences but also inflict often grave and irreparable harm on students, lab workers, and bystanders.

ACS’s December declaration culminates nearly a decade of concern and advocacy within the society that arose from the 2009 death of 23-year-old research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji. A series of safety catastrophes at other major academic institutions in subsequent years strengthened the effort. In each of these cases, investigations ascribed similar root causes: failure to analyze and mitigate risks in advance of experiments and to follow known and accepted safety practices in carrying them out. Investigators also uniformly noted that these problems reflect institutional cultures and scientific supervisors that failed to give safety a high priority.

In late August, as thousands of chemists converged on Washington, D.C., for ACS’s national meeting, Neal Langerman, an officer of ACS's Division of Chemical Health and Safety, told me that “the senior leadership of the society is moving aggressively to enhance safety in all elements of the professional development of chemical scientists, at all levels.” Given that ACS members work in many fields and roles across the scientific world, their society’s addition of safety to the definition of professionalism could exert broad influence on scientists in many settings. ACS’s most recent statement of its mission, vision, and core values also adds that, “Through educational resources, instruction, and mentorship, ACS and its members will promote principles of safety … throughout pre-college, undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate education.” If successful, influencing educational institutions to make safety and safety education top priorities could both inspire change in often recalcitrant campus cultures and carry the values of safety consciousness strongly into the future.

The question, of course, is whether these admirable statements are first steps that will truly translate into widespread improvement in consciousness and practice. The years since Sangji’s catastrophe have seen considerable action within chemistry and other scientific communities. In some parts of academic science, however, the work is far from complete. The long and sorrowful history of inattention and laxity at far too many institutions demands that attention to safety grow and spread.

Concrete progress

In a September essay, ACS President Allison Campbell describes a (nonlab) safety mishap caused by her own “reduced vigilance,” “lower[ed] … awareness,” and “overconfidence.” Attention to safety, this incident taught her, must be at the forefront of scientists’ minds. And ACS has recently taken a number of actions that embody the society’s explicit commitment to safety, Langerman said at the August meeting. One is a requirement of the ACS Petroleum Research Fund—which in 2016 awarded approximately $20 million—that every proposal address safety. In addition, he continued, in 2017 ACS journals began requiring that, “as appropriate, safety be addressed in [the] material and methods [section] of all submitted manuscripts.” At the August meeting, the ACS board also raised the visibility of safety as an element of professional work when it announced a national award for achievement in chemical safety, details of which are to be released at a later date. The board also approved an online workshop in chemical and laboratory safety, which will be aimed primarily at students but open to anyone. An ACS certificate will be awarded for successful completion of the 11-module program. 

In addition to imparting critical knowledge, this credential is intended to appeal to employers, who have long expressed dismay at the lack of safety knowledge and awareness among new hires from even the best campuses, Langerman noted. The hope is that the certificate becomes de rigueur for any well-wrought chemistry resume, which would by extension make safety knowledge a prerequisite for landing a good job. If employers do indeed come to view this or a similar credential as mandatory or nearly so, and if the program effectively inculcates significant knowledge and safety consciousness, it could serve as a powerful change agent among students and university departments wanting to improve graduates’ employment prospects.

Also advancing safety education as a means of both protecting those working in academic labs and promoting safety consciousness and practice among rising generations is the annual presentation of the SafetyStratus College and University Health and Safety Award, which recognizes excellence in safety at the undergraduate level. This year, it honored Stanford University and its safety training programs for undergraduates and the graduate student assistants who supervise and mentor them in lab courses. Charles T. Cox, who coordinates the program for the Stanford chemistry department, noted in accepting the award that, in order to provide proper safety guidance for undergraduates, graduate assistants must “understand the principles as well as enforce the rules.”

To give them that understanding, the university recently upgraded the program, Cox said. Teaching assistants were formerly trained by PowerPoint presentations and lab tours. Now, each assistant must complete a series of interactive online modules, in-person discussions, and hands-on small group lab experiences that together cover a complete range of safety topics. Undergraduates must also pass interactive general training online, as well as in-person training specific to the particular labs they work in. Students at all levels are taught that attention to safety, including using proper equipment and following proper procedures, is a fundamental requirement of working in the chemistry department’s labs. Cox added that the program will soon expand to the biology and chemical engineering departments, a hopeful sign that safety consciousness is spreading.

Putting money into safety

From a different vantage point, Nathan Watson, CEO of BioRAFT, a company that sells proprietary lab safety management and compliance software, sees “major improvement” in awareness and interest at many institutions as they hike their expenditures on safety from year to year, sometimes by as much as a factor of 10, he told me at the August meeting. “We’re seeing much smaller schools and state schools coming to us and saying, ‘Let’s just do this right.’ It is very encouraging.” Schools of all sizes are “putting more money into a more comprehensive approach to safety,” he adds. 

They “recognize more and more that trying to force safety onto researchers” is not a productive strategy, Watson continued. The right approach, which he sees an increasing number of schools adopting, “is engaging researchers in safety, making it easier for them. Imagine trying to put on a five-point seatbelt every time you got into your regular car; you wouldn’t do it.” Instead, getting buy-in from researchers and lab leaders about manageable approaches that integrate safety into regular work habits—the equivalent of the ubiquitous three-point seatbelt—produces much better results, he says. This approach also appears to comport with ACS’s emphasis, as stated in its strategic plan, on chemistry practice and education that is not only “safe, ethical, [and] responsible,” but also sustainable and effective.

Now that a major scientific society is speaking out so strongly and unequivocally on lab safety as an essential element of good practice for every scientist, safety advocates at the meeting expressed optimism about further progress ahead. But no one finds the current situation satisfactory, with some institutions making notable strides in bettering their safety cultures but too many others still with far to go. Advocates won’t be satisfied until scientists everywhere—and not just chemists—share and act on the belief that safety is essential to scientific professionalism. Or as Robert Waymouth, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at Stanford, said at the SafetyStratus award ceremony, “Doing science safely is the same as doing it well.”

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