Lab Life

Improving the Academic Safety Culture: The Place of Lab Safety Teams

Monica Nyansa

Chemistry grad students embark on their graduate school journey expecting that laboratory safety skills will be an important part of their training. Many realize that these skills are often undervalued in academic research labs. Institutions tend to require that PIs be responsible for the lab safety training of their graduate students, and PIs tend to assume prior experience has already trained these novices; subsequently, the PIs can assign too much safety responsibility to grad students from the beginning.

This article shares my account of my personal experience working in an academic research lab. It is the story of how I became an advocate for the Lab Safety Team (LST) movement within academic institutions.

When I moved to the United States for graduate school in 2018, my experience working with different hazardous chemicals was limited. I had worked with highly concentrated acids and bases and some organic solvents during my undergraduate and master’s degree education, but teaching assistants usually supervised me. I did not receive any formal training and education regarding the risks associated with using these chemicals, or how to assess them, beyond the general knowledge that these are dangerous chemicals that can harm you.

Moving into an academic research lab with a diverse set of chemicals and procedures seemed like a different world to me. As a graduate student researcher, I was expected to plan and run experiments with virtually no direct oversight. I was also responsible for maintaining a lab for the first time—handling chemical storage and housekeeping issues. My undergraduate experience did not prepare me for this type of significant responsibility in a lab, yet my graduate lab appeared to assume that I was prepared for this role.

Official Lab Safety Training Can Prove Inadequate

My department has a required chemical safety course that covers the basics of laboratory safety, including a review of the university’s Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP). The CHP covers topics such as writing Standard Operating Procedures and how to be safer in a chemical lab environment. Given how overwhelmed I felt by the significant increase of responsibility in transitioning from being an undergraduate student in a teaching lab to being a graduate researcher in a research lab, I was grateful for this training and took it seriously.

However, the state of housekeeping in my lab suggested that the training described above did not seem to have much of an impact on the lab environment itself. Some of my first memories from those early days are of spending excessive amounts of time finding a chemical in a disorganized chemical inventory system. There were also benches and hood spaces in the lab that were unusable due to chemical messes that the parties responsible never cleaned. Additionally, my lab contained more than 200 different chemicals, each with hazards and risks I needed to be familiar with in order to handle chemical storage in our lab appropriately, and also so that I could use the chemicals safely in my experiments.

Given the mandatory safety course I described above, I wondered whether my lab represented an isolated situation, and whether other labs were being run more in line with what we learned during the training. However, whenever I sought help with experimental setups from my colleagues in different labs, we never discussed the safety aspects of those experiments. Looking back and knowing what I know now, I’m sure there were many things I did based on the advice of my colleagues that were unsafe or unwise. Since we had all been through the same limited safety training, we all had similar gaps in our knowledge. This suggested to me that my experience was not an isolated one in the department.

Peer-to-Peer Mentorship

In November 2020, I was among the eight graduate students sponsored by the current chair of my Department of Chemistry to attend a workshop hosted by the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety (CHAS) called, “Empowering Academic Researchers for Strengthening Safety Culture.” This workshop—attended by graduate students, safety professionals, and faculty—focused on promoting bottom-up approaches to safety culture in academic labs.

The CHAS workshop felt like an answered prayer. I was excited to attend it and to interact with fellow graduate students who were actively involved in safety leadership. Our exchanges also confirmed my suspicion that what I was dealing with in my lab concerning safety was not an isolated incident. It made me realize how pervasive lab safety issues are in academic research lab settings. Here I also learned how graduate student researchers lead safety groups called laboratory safety teams (LSTs) as a collective approach to finding solutions to some of the safety-related issues within their labs, departments, and institutions.

I became very interested in and involved with LSTs by serving as a moderator for subsequent workshops. I also worked with some of my colleagues who also attended the CHAS workshop and had a mutual interest in improving the safety culture within our department. Together we established an LST known as the Chemistry Graduate Safety Committee earlier this year.

Some of the best highlights of attending the CHAS safety culture workshop were the peer-to-peer interactions about safety culture within our institutions and speaking with the safety professionals who attended. The meeting provided an opportunity to connect with fellow graduate students who are passionate about lab safety and are doing something to promote a positive safety culture within their labs and departments.

What Is a Lab Safety Team (LST)?

Image credit: Calla M. McCulley

In 2012, the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota, in partnership with DOW Chemical Company, initiated what has become generally referred to as the “LST movement.” It is intended to strengthen the academic safety culture in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Materials Science departments. This safety initiative “involves enabling leadership by graduate students and postdoctoral associate laboratory safety officers (LSO)” to improve academic safety culture; it is meant to both supplement and complement the existing lab safety efforts of faculty and administrators.1

Enabling the leadership of graduate students and postdoctoral associates, who as frontline researchers are involved in the day-to-day activities of the lab, could positively influence the attitudes, behaviors, and values of the academic community toward safety. LSTs work independently to assess safety issues within their departments and institutions and to propose solutions to help mitigate these issues—with the full support of their department heads, safety professionals, and champions.

The safety leadership opportunity presented by LSTs has “the potential to enhance the communication among researchers at all levels, enrich the professional development of newer researchers, and improve the culture of safety across academic institutions”.2 Effectively communicating about chemical and laboratory safety requires that graduate and postdoctoral researchers be empowered to feel confident when speaking up about safety issues they encounter in their labs, departments, and institutions.

Lab Safety Team Workshops Offer Many Benefits Going Forward

To better understand best practices for forming and maintaining LSTs, Dr. Kali Miller (a graduate student at the time) founded the “Developing Graduate Student Leadership Skills in Laboratory Safety” workshop. She piloted it at the 255th National American Chemical Society Meeting. This workshop sought to provide attendees with the knowledge and resources to return to their institutions and start LSTs or similar programs. Under a new name, the workshop continues to be held with ACS National Meetings and some regional meetings.3 Because of the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Dr. Miller’s workshop was reworked as a virtual event, and the title was changed to “Empowering Academic Researchers to Strengthen Safety Culture.” The new format has allowed more graduate students to get involved in running the workshop and enabled a wider diversity of individuals to attend. The workshop is now held virtually three times per year, in March, June, and October.

Participants from this workshop, including me, have benefitted from the safety net this education platform provides. I have been mentored by both safety professionals and graduate student peers as a result of attending. They have shared their own experiences and strategies for building their safety leadership skills and have connected me with their contacts when I have needed more specific advice about how to launch our LST and other specific projects. Some of these mentorships have developed into friendships and invaluable connections as I continue to navigate life after my Ph.D. education.

Connecting to the LST Network

If you are a graduate or postdoctoral scholar interested in participating in the growing LST movement, the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety website has excellent resources for LSTs.

To learn more about the virtual workshop, “Empowering Academic Researchers to Strengthen Safety Culture,” please see: http://dchas.org/2022/03/29/workshops2022/

To access a growing repository of resources for LSTs, please see the ACS CHAS list of workshop resources at: http://dchas.org/lst-workshop-resources/

Here are some articles I recommend for learning more about the impact of the workshop, how to start an LST, and the different ways LSTs promote the safety culture within academic institutions:

References

1. McGarry, K. A., Hurley, K. R., Volp, K. A., et al. Student involvement in improving the culture of safety in academic laboratories. J. Chem. Educ. 2013, 90 (11), 1,414–1,417. https://doi.org/10.1021/ed400305e

2. Martin, J. A., Miller, K. A., Pinkhassik, E. Starting and sustaining a laboratory safety team (LST). ACS Chem. Health Saf. 2020, 27 (3), 170–182.

3. Miller, K. A., Tyler, K. I. Impact of a pilot laboratory safety team workshop. J. Chem. Health Saf. 2019, 26 (3), 20–26.