A recent study in the Journal of Chemical Education showed that graduate research students can make great strides in improving safety culture by taking a “bottom-up” approach to positively influence adherence to lab safety guidelines and policies.
The University of Minnesota Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science partnered with The Dow Chemical Company to create a Joint Safety Team (JST) initiative, driven by graduate student and postdoctoral associate laboratory safety officers¹. Rather than relying on a top-down enforcement of safety policies by department heads and the Department of Environmental Health & Safety, the students actively engaged lab managers and safety officers, proving that a student-empowered approach is a valuable tool for improving the culture of safety.
A tour of Dow Chemical allowed the students to observe safety infrastructure, well-regulated laboratories and heightened awareness of safety in an industry setting, which served as a model for the JST. Following the tour, the JST students implemented safety improvement efforts on campus that included
- Education and resources,
- Personal protective equipment (PPE),
- Technology improvements,
- Public relations,
- Training that defined the role and responsibilities of a lab safety officer,
- A “cleanup” event to identify and dispose of unknown waste in the labs,
- A waste seminar on managing hazardous waste, and
- A guidebook for lab safety officers.
Universities seeking to encourage compliance with safety policies should take note of the achievements of the University of Minnesota’s JST initiative. Here at the UW, our Lab Safety Initiative team is taking acion to reduce barriers to safety and improve awareness at all levels, including graduate students. Online and classroom training targeting safety in laboratories is available from EH&S.
1) Journal of Chemical Education: Student Involvement in Improving the Culture of Safety in Academic Laboratories