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Teaching safety skills, not just safety rules

Efforts to improve safety standards and practices in academic labs are multiplying at universities and colleges across the country, but teaching safety as rules and compliance is insufficient, experts agree. Instead, students need to learn and practice a range of safety skills, according to guidelines for undergraduate education issued last year by the American Chemical Society (ACS). Among other skills, students must be taught how to understand categories of hazards, “recognize … hazards in laboratories, assess the risks from these hazards, know how to minimize the risks, and prepare for emergencies,” the guidelines say.

To offer some examples of how various institutions are trying to impart these lessons and skills to their students and trainees, a number of faculty members and university safety officers described their approaches at this year’s spring meeting of the ACS in San Diego, California, Jyllian Kemsley reported last month at Chemical & Engineering News. At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), for example, all incoming chemistry and biochemistry graduate teaching assistants receive special training in “chemical hygiene and safety culture concepts and go through the tools available for hazard identification and assessing risks,” said Lawrence Tirri, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UNLV, as quoted in the article. “We want to make sure they understand what our department expects of them when they go into the labs and what they should convey to their students.” In addition, Tirri expects to incorporate hazard identification and risk assessment into undergraduate courses, including asking safety questions on quizzes and exams and requiring seniors to write full hazard assessments.

Samuella B. Sigmann of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, described a required course on research for junior chemistry students that covers safety along with ethics and other topics. During the course, students analyze the hazards of a laboratory procedure. “The hardest thing for them to wrap their heads around is dividing a process into steps and determining the risk for each step,” she said, as quoted in the article. “They tend to want to combine or skip steps, such as pouring 30 mL of nitric acid into a beaker, skipping taking that 2.5-L bottle out of the cabinet and transporting it. But transporting the bottle is one of the highest hazard steps—if you drop it and it breaks, it’s likely a hazmat situation.” A hazard analysis is also a required part of the proposals that students prepare for their senior research projects. 

At Seattle University in Washington, Kemsley wrote, chemistry students are divided into “safety teams” that take turns doing hazard assessments of assigned procedures, making safety inspections before lab sessions begin, and monitoring their fellow students’ safety practices during the work and cleanup. “[W]e never ever saw students having safety conversations with each other prior to implementation of this program,” said P.J. Alaimo, a professor of chemistry at the university, as quoted by Kemsley. “Now it’s almost as common as ‘What do we do next?’” And at the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University, College Station, every proposal by anyone doing research, from undergraduates through senior professors, must include a hazard analysis that is approved by the college’s director of engineering safety, David Breeding, as I reported earlier this year. “I call it increasing awareness,” he told me.

Experience in hazard analysis and risk assessment, hopes UNLV’s Tirri, as quoted by Kemsley, is “going to help students develop their thinking and be more aware of what’s going on around them, not just in the laboratory but in their everyday lives.”