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Moving Lab Safety Higher Up the Agenda

Typically the halls of education within our ‘ivory towers’ are filled with tradition, so making changes can be difficult and slow. Everything from curriculum to regulations and compliance for things like laboratory safety can be affected.

Bluntly put, academicians dislike being told what to do – and this is exactly what compliance and regulations try to accomplish. Many academic environs continue to be “buried in the lab bench” despite all the publicity surrounding accidents. In my opinion, a single motivated person can make a difference when it comes to opening a discourse on safety in the laboratory and starting positive change on behalf of students, graduates, faculty and staff. However, they need to think about how the topic is approached and be mindful that culture change can be a slow continual process over several years, particularly as the population is so fluid. Therefore, it is the long-term employees that must form the core around which culture change evolves.

I am witness to this type of environ and the unique situations involved with making changes to any part of the program. For me, it all comes down to the students; without them there is no university. When I started 11 years ago, safety was lax. Accidents happened frequently and no one had accountability despite liability being firmly ensconced on the university. Now, the media, courts, families and regulatory agencies like to associate names and faces with liability when incidents occur. In my own area – I am that person.

Having a responsible party overseeing laboratory safety is key to developing a safety culture. The person needs to be able to take the lead and develop material for the laboratories based on the audience. In the case of undergraduate teaching laboratories, for example, such material needs to be easy to understand and presented in a non-threatening, every day manner. Yes, there are rules and regulations to be followed, but having participatory activities that explain why these rules are in place helps everyone understand the importance of being compliant.

I also think that the integration of first-hand experiences is important, so that both students and colleagues do not perceive you as preaching or self-righteous. I have worked in laboratory environments since I was sixteen and I have accumulated spectacular, true-life tales of near misses, disasters and miraculous outcomes, many of which actually happened to me. I use these experiences with a few props or pictures to further demonstrate what can go right and what can go wrong. In addition, I believe in what I am presenting, because an audience will not tolerate fakery for the purpose of being right. Above all, I try to make my discussion interesting and if possible interactive.

Laboratory safety consistency can be maintained by having active, dedicated individuals involved – and over time the safety culture will change as rules and regulations are integrated into everyday tasks, such as laboratory prep (“Please put on your protective equipment before getting out the glassware!”). If you are the responsible person, be responsive and willing to answer questions, but above all do not hide behind the regulations. When people realize you genuinely care about them, they will have a greater understanding and patience of things you ask them to do.

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About the Author
Kimberly Moser
Kimberly Moser

“Chemistry was the furthest thought from my mind when I took a student position eleven years ago – I just wanted a job. This has developed into loving what I do and cannot think of anyplace where I would be happier,” says Kimberly Moser of the University of Oklahoma Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She is the Instructional Laboratory Manager responsible for the undergraduate laboratories in the chemistry teaching program. “These people are under my care while they are here – graduates, undergraduates, staff and faculty. Too often do we see tragic stories in the news regarding chemical incidents. Our purpose in a University is to educate and this includes teaching people to respect and understand their surroundings. Love for these people and care for their well-being is how I developed into a motivator for safety in academia.”

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