Empowered Students and Postdocs Drive Lab Safety

Some organizations start their gatherings with a prayer or a song or the Pledge of Allegiance. At the University of Minnesota (UMN), Twin Cities, Department of Chemistry—and also the university’s chemical engineering and materials science (CEMS) department—no lab meeting or departmental seminar gets underway without a “safety moment,” a presentation about a lab safety topic that lasts a minute or two. It can be funny or serious. It can consist of just talk or include slides, props, or a demonstration—whatever the presentation’s host chooses. What it can’t be is too long, or missing.

This exotic custom, which often startles visitors from other universities, is perhaps the most visible sign of an ongoing transformation in departmental culture that, in less than 2 years, has made safety a central concern of daily life in these labs. Even more remarkably, this change, though strongly supported by the departments’ top leadership, largely results from planning, organizing and management by scores of graduate students and postdocs working together as a volunteer group called the Joint Safety Team (JST).

It was a totally different way of incorporating safety, not just into the plan of doing research but into the day-to-day activities of doing research.

The JST aims for nothing less than to “inculcate safety as a core value and an integral part of academic life,” says chemistry Chair William Tolman in a webinar describing the program. BioRAFT, a company that makes software for managing university laboratories, was the webinar’s sponsor.

Conspicuous change

In each lab, one or more graduate students or postdocs serve as lab safety officers (LSOs), acting as safety advisers, advocates, and educators for their lab mates. The LSOs use a handbook prepared by the JST, and each month they gather for an hour-long JST-run training session on how to do the job. A leadership team composed of a dozen volunteer students and postdocs administers JST programs. The JST’s other accomplishments thus far include the creation of guidelines for making labs safer, a resource-packed website and a set of standard posters and templates containing information on hazards and important contact numbers, displayed in each lab.

Beyond that, JST members have visited nearly every lab to observe the level of cleanliness and general housekeeping and to offer comments to lab leaders and members. The JST also sponsored a cleanup week that provided the opportunity for lab members to safely and inexpensively discard the many unknown, outdated, or otherwise unsafe chemicals that had accumulated over time and also to get labs into better order.

Personal habits have changed as well. Safety moments are now de rigueur. A safety note providing a brief tip arrives weekly in students’, postdocs’, staff members’, and faculty members’ email inboxes. Awareness of the need for proper personal protective equipment has risen, along with use of lab coats, protective eyewear, and other safety gear. The CEMS department ran an awareness-raising safety video contest, producing some hilarious winners.

Beyond wildest dreams

The impetus that led to the creation of the JST came from Tolman, after he viewed “Experimenting with Danger,” the video that accompanies the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s groundbreaking 2011 report on the safety deficiencies rampant in academic labs. Its impact on him was so “explosive,” Tolman says in the webinar, that he showed highlights of the video to his faculty, who watched in “hushed silence.” CEMS Chair Frank Bates quickly became an ally. “We knew we needed to do something,” but they did not know exactly what, Tolman says in an interview with Science Careers.

The way became clearer in 2012 when The Dow Chemical Company, spearheaded by William Banholzer, at the time the company’s chief technology officer, approached chemistry departments at several universities, including the University of Minnesota, offering to work with them to improve lab safety. “We’re 11 times safer in a Dow lab than in a university lab,” Banholzer told Science Careers in a 2013 interview. “I find it unacceptable that we would tolerate different standards for academia and industry. We do exactly the same work. … [At Dow] we have a mindset that safety is a culture. If you can’t do the work safely, you can’t do it in our company.”    

Tolman recalls that at a brainstorming meeting to discuss Dow’s offer—the meeting included faculty, university safety staff, and some graduate students—”the idea came up: Why don’t we have the students … drive this? I remember the look [of agreement] Frank and I gave each other. … The key to getting the students excited was what happened next. Dow decided to invite the students to come out and visit.”

But the contrast went deeper. “It was a totally different way of incorporating safety, not just into the plan of doing research but into the day-to-day activities of doing research,” Rudd says. “They incorporated safety on a very fundamental level that none of us had even considered, not even in our wildest dreams.”

“We were supercharged” and returned to campus determined to emulate what they had learned, Rudd says in the webinar. They quickly saw, however, that Dow’s safety culture could not transfer in total to the university’s very different environment. “The students realized that if we were going to do something here, it would have to be unique to us,” Tolman tells Science Careers. A “subset” of the visitors to Dow set to work developing their ideas, producing a 55-page, single-spaced document detailing 13 specific recommendations.

“Frank and I were blown away” by this “unbelievable response,” including recommendations so expansive that the group had to select a few to be tackled first, says Tolman in the webinar.

The importance of leadership

Strong support from Tolman and Bates has proven crucial in the effort’s success. Although most faculty were “on board” with the students’ suggestions and “supportive of the time and energy” needed to put them into effect, “a few … were initially recalcitrant, cynical, and not supportive,” Tolman says in the interview. The requirement that research groups maintain a set of lab-specific standard operating procedures now figures in annual faculty evaluations. The departments also contributed $2500 each to JST to cover expenses, and Dow made a one-time gift to produce the posters and other materials.

At first, some JST activists devoted considerable time to the effort, causing “a little friction” with faculty members who were concerned that they get their scientific work done, Tolman says. “But we worked it out.” These days, “we delegate a lot of the smaller roles,” explains Katie Peterson, a leadership team member who will soon receive her Ph.D., in an interview.

The experience of improving safety and running an organization benefits more than the departments, Peterson says. Potential employers “want to talk about” her JST work in job interviews. They seem to appreciate that “you understand that there’s a cultural difference [between industry and academe] and you’re working to bridge that gap.” Rudd even presented a safety moment during a job interview. He starts the job this spring.

Industrial recruiters tell Tolman “how impressed they were that the students seemed to be so much more up on safety” than students elsewhere—an advantage in attracting companies to recruit at UMN, he believes. “I think it’s going to help us recruit better graduate students and postdocs [who see that]  ‘this is a place that really cares about my safety,’ ” he adds.

The work of transforming the culture in these departments is not yet complete, but Tolman, Rudd, and Peterson agree that enthusiasm for the effort has outlived the initial excitement of those who visited Dow. Many of the students and postdocs who made that trip have already left the university. Few of the JST’s current leaders or LSOs went on the visit.

Tolman and many others now want to see the program “go viral” around the country. He and colleagues “spread the word” by adding safety moments to their talks at other universities, he says. He strongly encourages other chemical companies to help universities with invitations and advice, as Dow did for UMN.

The JST makes safety “part of your graduate education … integrated into your daily activities, not something that is separate,” says Rudd. “I look around and see” the change, adds Tolman. “Just walking around the department, it’s just night and day.” The department is also working on developing data to document the change.

Though building a strong safety culture takes continuing time and effort, he, Rudd, and Peterson agree, it’s well within the capacity of departments across the country to achieve.

For more on implementing the UMN program, see the BioRAFTand an , “Student Involvement in Improving the Culture of Safety in Academic Laboratories,” in the Journal of Chemical Education.

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