Teaching Laboratory Safety
Empowering Students, Educators, and Researchers to Do Safe Science
Working from Home but Missing Your Synergist? Update Your Address
If you’ve been working from home during the pandemic, please consider updating your address with AIHA. You can change your address by editing your profile through AIHA.org. To ensure uninterrupted delivery of The Synergist, designate your home address as “preferred” on your profile. Update your address now.
An ongoing struggle for safety professionals is effectively training employees to ensure they are performing their work safely and that they will go home healthy. The unique, amorphous environment of research and laboratory work, which features constantly changing processes, employees, and work sites, poses additional challenges. Laboratory environments demand more thorough safety education than many work sites. However, the extent and quality of this education varies widely among lab workers and researchers, who range from K-12 science teachers to senior research engineers. The future of lab safety education needs to go further than disseminating rules and requirements and instead should integrate safety into the process of science from the start.
LAB SAFETY TRAINING FOR K-12 EDUCATORS For many scientists and engineers, the spark of interest in a research career ignited in middle or high school science class, when they first dissected a frog, used a Bunsen burner, or made a battery out of a potato. In contrast, most primary and secondary education teachers take a less nostalgic path, with their academic journeys focusing primarily on content and teaching methods and little on laboratory preparations and safety. While awareness is growing for the need to integrate safety into K-12 science education, educators struggle with a lack of resources and support. Instead of having inspiring classroom experiences, students across the country may end up in the hospital due to in-class demonstrations gone awry.
Students pursuing careers as science teachers often must seek resources outside of their curricula, such as those available through student groups or conferences, to fill in the gaps in their research safety educations. Bachelor’s degree programs leading to careers in education leave little room for hands-on training in planning, setting up, and safely running classroom labs or demonstrations. These future educators receive most of their exposure to laboratory safety in their science courses, where labs are already prepared and safety rules are generally imposed rather than explained.
We recently spoke with a current K-12 chemistry teacher who revealed their frustrations and concerns around the lack of safety resources and training for educators. This teacher said they wanted to better understand the hazards present in their lab, what to do in case of an emergency, and how to properly store chemicals, as well as why certain chemicals must be stored in particular ways. They said it “terrified” them that their school district had never informed them of any procedures to follow in case of an emergency and that they wished they had access to a document listing steps to take and phone numbers to call if an emergency were to happen. “I have a general idea of where to start on this,” they said, “but would love a second opinion,” that is, someone who could tell them what they needed to ensure lab safety. They also suggested that health and safety professionals could provide safety inventories, offer a service reviewing lesson plans over email, or teach online lab safety classes.
This teacher felt that access to a safety professional, such as an industrial hygienist, would be an invaluable resource. As safety professionals, community members, parents, and fellow scientists, industrial hygienists can also reach out to local school districts or teachers’ unions to express concerns and offer support to educators who want to do the best, safest jobs possible.
While not as favorable as complete courses on lab safety or easy access to qualified professionals, there are some resources available for in-service teachers through professional societies. The National Science Teaching Association has published position statements in support of safe laboratories as well as safety alerts and other resources that can be used right away, while the American Association of Chemistry Teachers offers videos and teaching resources that can be applied to all sciences. Some secondary education programs are now implementing lab safety for teachers: for example, South Dakota State University offers lab safety education within the chemistry education master’s degree program. Additionally, some school districts may even have on-staff safety professionals who can assist with lab planning, waste management, and emergency procedures. These resources and professional development opportunities should be broadly shared, further developed, and encouraged to provide a foundation of safety knowledge and skills that will benefit our educators and students for years to come.
The future of lab safety education needs to go further than disseminating rules and requirements and instead should integrate safety into the process of science from the start.
LAB SAFETY AT THE COLLEGIATE LEVEL The college and university environment presents opportunities for formal education in science and engineering safety as well as hands-on practice at safely working in labs and performing independent research. While some accredited degree programs require safety instruction in their curricula, it is often up to individual instructors and principal investigators to incorporate education on research safety principles. This reliance on individual employees to decide how much safety education or training to include produces graduates with varied levels of safety knowledge and preparedness for the research field.
The university environment must maintain balance between minimizing liability and preventing accidents and stimulating knowledge and passion for the sciences. Introductory labs are modified to minimize risk to students by using less hazardous chemicals or involving less hands-on manipulation and, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, are now being adapted for performance within students’ homes. While this represents an enormous achievement in eliminating and substituting hazards faced by students, it may lead to a false sense of security in the laboratory and lack of readiness and risk recognition. Additionally, when safety concerns arise in undergraduate laboratories, rules for compliance are usually presented to students with little or no explanation about why they are in place and what risks they are meant to address. To empower students and future researchers, instructors must teach them about the science of safety and laboratory risk assessment. Deans, department heads, and all individual instructors, principal investigators, and research staff must recognize and include safety as an institutional value.
Safety education in university curricula can look very different depending on the degree program and the level of hands-on work that students are required to perform. In the engineering curriculum, for example, safety education may be formulated as post-incident investigations of building collapses, industrial explosions, or large-scale exposure events, in which students work backwards through an incident using formal or informal analysis to determine where things went wrong and where safeguards, training, or procedures could have been put in place to prevent the incident. Curricula can also involve hazardous materials operations or other process safety reviews of student plant design projects that anticipate safeguards that should be implemented to maintain stable plants in cases of loss of power, containment, or cooling. Chemistry courses can incorporate safety by teaching theoretical knowledge of chemicals and reactions as well as safety considerations for working with specific functional groups, catalysts, and reactions. In the biological and earth sciences, hands-on safety practice can involve risk management planning in field work, such as by requiring students to complete field safety plans that consider factors from safely working with sample reagents to preparing for spills or medical emergencies.
Lab courses can integrate safety by requiring students to report not only the data they gathered and the conclusions they drew but also the risks involved in the experiments, what engineering and administrative controls and personal protective equipment were used to reduce risks, and how wastes were properly neutralized, sterilized, or disposed of. Students in research labs should be involved in procedure and experiment planning and invited to participate in departmental or institutional safety committees and training.
In fact, teaching students the skills necessary to recognize and mitigate risk can be another benefit of including safety education in STEM course curricula and integrating it into hands-on lab work. This empowers students to recognize and speak up or seek further information when they don’t feel safe or want additional explanation at their lab, internship, or job site. Furthermore, STEM courses across the board can prepare students for industry work by teaching them about the history of safety and environmental regulations, how they are implemented, and how they affect professionals’ everyday work.
The American Chemical Society has prioritized guidance and tools for enhancing safety knowledge in academia, in response to tragic incidents at UCLA in 2008 and Texas Tech in 2010 that led to the death of one graduate student and the severe injury of another. These accidents also highlight the lax safety cultures at universities compared to industry labs. Resources for integrating risk assessment and safety skills into curricula can be found in curriculum development publications and online resources, such as those offered by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). Additionally, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has introduced a requirement for instructors to include safety education in chemical engineering curricula.
SAFETY FOR JUNIOR AND SENIOR INDUSTRY SCIENTISTS Scientists come to industry having spent years learning and studying in their chosen fields. Scientists are inquisitive; they know how to ask questions about their research in order to move it forward. Safety professionals should take advantage of this quality by offering discussions, collaborations, and learning opportunities to teach scientists to ask questions about safety.
Safety training and education should be a continuous process, not something that only occurs once per year or during employee on-boarding. Training should go beyond compliance to allow researchers to learn and understand the science of safety. Not only does this help improve compliance, but scientists who have a deeper understanding of safety are more likely to apply safe practices to their work. Scientists should also be made aware of internal and external safety resources and how to use them during training.
Hosting webinars created by internal and external sources on relevant safety topics is an efficient method of providing training, education, and awareness of available resources and creates an opportunity for scientists to learn from safety professionals. Attendees will come away with more questions and become more engaged with the occupational health and safety field, fostering a more collaborative environment. Many of the resources previously discussed in relation to academic settings can also be applied in industry settings.
Allow scientists at your workplace to question how and why safety practices are implemented the way they are. This can lead to mutual learning between safety and research professionals, as discussions create an environment for open communication between the two groups. Scientists can learn about safety practices, why they exist, and how to apply them to their own research. From these discussions, scientists can also develop safety mindsets by asking themselves questions about their procedures, such as “What could go wrong?” and “If something does go wrong, what would be the result?” and identifying hazards in each step. Learning from industrial hygienists about the science of safety, including what safety-related questions to ask, helps scientists develop greater situational awareness during lab work. When an unexpected change occurs in a process, they are more empowered to stop and think about their options and choose a safer course of action.
Safety discussions shouldn’t only occur between safety experts and researchers; they should also happen between researchers. Senior scientists can learn as much from their junior scientist counterparts as junior scientists can learn from senior scientists. For example, junior scientists may have learned safer research methods during their education that can be applied to their current work. This type of environment may also lead to abandonment of long-established bad habits.
Finally, safety discussions don’t have to be limited to mentor-mentee relationships or within research groups. One means of potentially fostering safety-related collaborations between research groups is through creating networks among labs so that they can learn what safety best practices other labs have implemented. Within “focal point networks’’ for specific lab safety topics, each lab appoints a representative who meets with the other labs’ representatives a few times a year to discuss what is going well, what isn’t, and how processes can be improved.
ADVANCING LAB SAFETY Between January 2001 and July 2018, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board identified 261 accidents that occurred in lab, experiment, and presentation settings, according to a 2018 statement released by Kristen Kulinowski, CSB's then interim executive, and the 2018 president of the American Chemical Society, Peter K. Dorhout. One hundred thirty incidents occurred at colleges, universities, professional schools, or junior colleges, resulting in 185 injuries and five fatalities. Sixty-six incidents occurred in elementary and secondary schools, injuring 170 students in total.
The well publicized lab incidents such as the death of a UCLA graduate student in 2008 and an explosion at Texas Tech in 2010 have captured nationwide attention, but there are many more preventable incidents and injuries occurring in labs every day that most people don’t hear about. Earlier this year, a middle school student was burned during a chemistry class demonstration. Many more similar stories can be found on the Laboratory Safety Institute’s Memorial Wall for laboratory fatalities.
Tragedies such as these make it clear that safety is necessary and should be integrated into science education. This integration can be implemented in different ways, based on the academic or professional level of the affected researchers. To perform safe science in K-12 education, teachers must have training in creating inherently safe experiments that are still exciting for students. In higher education, safety should be implemented as hands-on laboratory course experiences. Finally, safety training in industry should go beyond formal training and incorporate a variety of learning opportunities.
For those wishing to get more involved in advancing lab safety, AIHA’s Laboratory Health and Safety Committee provides a forum for industrial hygiene and safety in laboratories. The committee’s stated goals include disseminating information relevant to lab safety to industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals. The Laboratory Health and Safety Committee is also creating a lessons learned site with the goal of disseminating information about incidents, their causes, consequences, and corrective actions. AIHA members who are interested in exploring new methods and approaches to communications and training are also invited to join the Communication and Training Methods Committee, which strives to help the occupational health and safety profession learn how to create effective training.
ASHLEY AUGSPURGER, PhD, CIH, CSP, is the biosafety officer and chemical hygiene officer for Corteva Agrisciences in Iowa. She is also the chair of the AIHA Communications and Training Methods Committee.
AMANDA HYETT-RINGGENBERG, PhD, is the environmental, health, and safety specialist at the University of Minnesota Morris and an adjunct chemistry instructor at the University of Southern Indiana.
RACHAEL PERRIELLO, MPH, is the research safety professional at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Send feedback to The Synergist.
istock/Getty Images
ACS Publications: “Teaching Chemical Safety and Information Skills Using Risk Assessment.”
ACS Institute: “College and University Guidelines.”
AIChE: “Strategies for Addressing ABET Safety Curriculum Guidance” (Feb. 6, 2013).
AIHA: “Laboratory Health and Safety Committee.”
AIHA: “Laboratory Health and Safety Committee – Lessons-Learned Incident Reports.”
American Association of Chemistry Teachers: “Safety.”
CSB: “Back to School Safety: The Importance of Laboratory Safety in the Classroom” (PDF, Aug. 17, 2018).
CSB: “Laboratory Safety.”
Laboratory Safety Institute: "Memorial Wall."
National Science Teaching Association: “Safety Resources.”