Make Safety Training a Part of Group Meetings

January 10th, 2012

Chemical Ed with GogglesJust like there is large subset of the Christian population that proclaims faith to be of deep personal importance but rarely finds time to attend weekly church services, there is a large contingent in academic chemistry that proclaims safety as the “top priority” but rarely finds time to participate in proper training. Where there are Christians who only make it to church once a year for Easter services, there are chemists who only bother with training during a 30-min annual refresher course. And just how calamitous personal events (e.g., life-threatening medical diagnoses) are often the only effective means of driving people to experience meaningful spiritual rebirth, it usually takes a tragic event to befall a chemist for an academic department to change the way it approaches safety.

In matters where science and religion clash, I will always side with science, but let’s not pretend scientists are immune to the hypocrisy of compromising their core values out of apathy or laziness. For the slogan “safety first” to carry any weight, it must be backed with action. Such action is generally missing from academic labs, where the slogans “papers first” or “money first” would probably be more suitable. If safety truly ranked first, we would spend more time on it than a few perfunctory lab inspections scattered around an annual refresher course.

If the importance of safety is genuinely held in such high regard—nobody will openly assert that safety is unimportant—then why aren’t training and compliance a bigger deal in academia? Sadly, the laxity of safety is so ingrained in our culture that the deficient system is perceived as normal. It wasn’t too long ago that R.B. Woodward proudly posed for photographs while smoking in his laboratory. In order to achieve meaningful improvement, someone is going to have to counteract this tremendous inertia and change the system.

There is probably a reluctance on the part of professors to institute any significant change because it will “eat up” valuable time. Every minute spent on safety training is a minute not spent running experiments. This fact I will concede, but there is one grand tradition of academic chemistry that manages to weather this criticism: the weekly group meeting. Practically every research group in the world abandons the lab to discuss their experimental results on a weekly basis. A significant fraction of these groups also invest time formally reviewing papers from the recent literature. The tacit implication of holding these meetings is clear: (i) results are important and (ii) keeping up with the literature is important. I see no reason why safety training should not be incorporated into weekly group meetings to emphasize that safety is also important.

How would such a plan be implemented? Professors could either devote an entire meeting (at some regular interval) to safety, or they could make safety a small part of every meeting. For instance, each time a student presents her research results, she could also include one slide devoted to safety. The lesson could deal with a hazard related to one of her experiments, or it could be something more general. The weekly emphasis on safety will help to reinforce the material by repetition and build a perceivable commitment to safety. From the standpoint of risk management, an ancillary benefit of having formal presentations is the creation of a paper trail (i.e., slides) that affirms training is conducted regularly.

The death of Sheri Sangji could have sparked a born-again devotion to safety in academia, but unfortunately, the progress seems largely limited to UCLA. Three years removed from Sangji’s death, many of the circumstances that led to her demise are still common problems in academic chemistry: there are many lab workers who don’t know when to use a cannula or that being contaminated with a pyrophoric material does not mean you must avoid the safety shower.  There are still people who fail to wear lab coats when working with nasty reagents—or who use lab coats made of polyester or cotton in blissful ignorance of their flammability. As with Sheri Sangji’s death, the news of the draconian charges leveled against Patrick Harran represents another opportunity for we, as chemists, to reassess our values and how we conduct research. While weaving safety into the “traditional” group meeting will not replace the need for hands-on training or enforcement of compliance, even if only in small amounts, it will be beneficial for safety to be included within this sacrosanct ritual. For any value to take hold, it must be practiced religiously.

23 Responses to “Make Safety Training a Part of Group Meetings”

  1. azmanam Says:

    Well said. I like the idea of talking through ‘what if’ scenarios on a regular basis, including procedures or apparatus we don’t regularly use in lab… what if something happens in the lab next door, would I know how to respond?

    I also think a twice a year dry run or something would be helpful. Someone else suggested this earlier elsewhere, but I don’t remember who. The PI walks into lab and says, ‘ok, there’s a fire in the hood over there and the person was working with Raney Ni. What do we do?’

  2. Matt Says:

    Wouldn’t it also promote good planning if, at the beginning of each week, the group met to discuss what reactions each person would be running and what hazards would be present and what precautions the grad students were taking. It would force each grad student to carefully consider the work that they were doing. It would also alert the other lab members of any dangerous reactions that could be taking place. This along with a “what if” discussion – maybe once a month – would be highly useful.
    I still see a big money-making venture for some (out of work) industrial chemist to sell their safety expertise to academic chemists. PIs (think they) don’t have the time or ability to cover most of this. Why not sell it to them. Lord knows many of them are willing to pay big for other things. Why wouldn’t they be willing to pay big money for an industrial safety consultant.

  3. John Spevacek Says:

    There are plenty of industrial examples of companies that start once-a-week safety but they eventually end up falling by the wayside as they run out of new things to talk about and everybody loses enthusiasm for rehashing the old. I can safely place a big bet that if there are no major academic accidents in the next year, you and everyone else will not be all up in arms about safety.

    I’ve worked in places that attempted to safeguard every single piece of equipment in ever more complex ways so that it would appear to be impossible to get hurt, but people still got hurt, so that meant more safeguards on the equipment.

    “This machine does not have a brain; you have to use yours.”

    My proposal: safety discussions should have a very specific purpose. When a new hazardous material comes into the lab (or new procedures are being used or…), call a meeting to discuss how this situation should be addressed. “Rick wants to work with RDX. What should he be doing…?”

    Regardless of the specifics, people will be able to see overlaps between this present discussion and other hazardous situations in the lab and apply the learnings from one case to another.

  4. opsomath Says:

    I’ll leave this excellent discussion by Mike Rowe here for comment.

    His point is that safety is not first – nor should it be. The endemic disregard of smart safety practices (often supplanted by security theater which can even impede safe practices) shoud stop, but let’s all be realistic about what our goals are.

  5. billswift Says:

    I would also place it third, with first and second going to personal development and actually accomplishing something. And judging from what I have seen and read NO ONE really places it number one except, possibly, a few pathetic bureaucrats whose primary activities are to say “NO” to everything and cover their behinds. (And a few mentally ill people who can’t even get out of their homes because of their fear.)

  6. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    In addition it might be helpful to have a checklist dealing with the specific kinds of hazardous chemistry recurring in that particular professor’s research. This would of course be easier for those who are working on specific methodologies rather than generic total syntheses, but it would still help. So if a professor’s research is centered around, say, tungsten-catalyzed cyclizations and the development of new phosphorus ylides, there could be a checklist hung above every student and post doc’s desk that details the particular caveats to be regarded during the implementation of the most common phosphorus and tungsten-related procedures and reagents in the lab. In addition these protocols could be drilled into everyone’s heads during lab meetings. I do like the idea of a five minute slot in every group meeting dedicated to a description of the safety hazards and their resolution in a particular’s students most recent work.

  7. The Heterocyclist Says:

    Great topic. I struggled with these issues the whole time I was a PI. I never felt my labs were as safe as I wanted them to be, but the closest we got was when safety discussions became a part of our group meetings. I appointed a group member as our internal safety person, and part of his or her responsibility was to lead off group meeting with 15-30 minutes of “safety time.” Typically, we began with some structured time where SOPs, emergency procedures, current challenges, etc., were covered, then we had open discussion. Lots of great questions (and answers) came up in those discussions, and I felt the culture of the lab shifted significantly in that era.

    There were other elements to our safety program, but I think this one was pivotal. Not only did we have a forum for the discussion of safety issues, placing it at the beginning of group meeting sent the message that I valued it. The PI is the leader, and the leader creates the culture of the team. If the PI is interested in safety and exudes that value, the team will support it, collaborate to increase it, and contribute in ways that they would not likely attempt in an environment where there’s more psychological risk, i.e., when the PI can’t or won’t get behind it.

    Now for full disclosure: While this safety strategy worked, I was the weak link and eventually our group meetings morphed to reflect other concerns of mine that grew from my own stress and weaknesses as a leader. “Safety time” fell by the wayside, but I don’t think it was because it was not a good idea. I dropped the ball. So I’ll ask other PIs out there: Assuming we all agree that safety is important, if your labs aren’t safe, what’s stopping you from creating a culture of safety? For me, if I could turn back the clock, I would have admitted that I was overwhelmed by the many responsibilities of being a professor and that I needed help. An interesting topic for another day.

  8. CR Says:

    “The PI walks into lab and says, ‘ok, there’s a fire in the hood over there and the person was working with Raney Ni. What do we do?’”

    Pull the sash down, get out and pull the fire alarm.

  9. KS Says:

    I think the problem should also be treated beyond the group meeting. There are many groups that do synthesis but it is not the major effort of the group. Also if it is not a large group, the collective knowledge of the PI and the group members may not be sufficient. I have suggested that there be periodic meeting of all people who do synthesis (use a large number of chemicals). I am curious if there has been a reaction to the criminal case at UCLA. If I was a professor at UCLA, I would be very hesitant to take on undergraduates in my lab. I would also think seriously about having only postdocs.

  10. Steward Says:

    I have tried to follow the discussions about lab. safety which have taken place reently from the far side of the Atlantic. I hope readers will not object to me sharing my thoughts.
    I am in general agreement on the philosophies behind most suggestions, but so far have not heard anything about safety support in the lab.
    Over many years in the industry I have become convinced that meetings, risk assessments, method statements and good intentions can only achieve so much. Of course all this has to happen and be in place but someone has to take overall responsibility for what happens at the bench. My personal view is that fairly frequent informal tours of any facility by someone (perhaps the Professor or Supervisor) who is willing to take responsibility, and to observe the activities going on can achieve a lot. Open questioning and discussion can allow the chemist to reflect on what they are doing, perhaps then deciding to change.

    There is a parallel in the construction industry; we all know that working at height from ladders is potentially life threatening but but how often do we see it done? The peripatetic casual inspection and chat can remind the user of the risks and lead them, gently, to adopting best practice. In such a case it does not matter even if the inspector is scared of heights!

    Finally opsomath (January 10th, 2012 at 5:43 AM points to Mike Rowe’s discussion ‘His point is that safety is not first – nor should it be.’
    I could not disagree more! Once you are dead or badly injured that’s the end of you and your goals, realistic or not. What a waste.

  11. insyder Says:

    timely: HF leak at Scripps Research Institute

  12. Paul Says:

    @John: I think that the hazards associated with a new material for a project is a great example of something to present in group meeting. Also, I think the repetition in these presentations will be a good thing, especially when you consider the high turnover in academic labs. Anyway, there are plenty of issues to discuss such that you won’t suffer from an appalling lack of variety over the course of any calendar year.

    For the record, I have written about safety concerns in academic labs long before the Sangji death and also in the interim period before the charges were filed. I even proposed adding safety (among other subjects) to group meetings well over a year ago. It won’t take regularly occurring lab accidents to make me remember these concerns; I will write about the laxity of lab safety in academia as long as the problem persists.

  13. Chemjobber Says:

    @azmanam: It was me.

    CR: Was there a person involved? If so, did you just leave them in the lab?

  14. a-non Says:

    As someone who has worked in labs in three continents, the best safety system that I have worked in required that when I would write up my experiment, next to the calculations for each reagent I would undertake a risk assessment (eg what class of chemical, what safety protocol, PPE, hood etc.) then BEFORE starting the exeriment I would have to get the experiment countersigned by someone else working in the lab. I thought that it was inefficient too when I started needing to do it, but in the end it became second nature.

    This system had the benefit that safety issues were considered before opening any bottles of reagent and ensured that someone else present in the lab knew what reaction I was doing. This also lead to lots of conversations, like “interesting conditions – I might try them in my next reaction”, or “have you considered this issue” etc. Essentially it lead to a more collaborative environment. Also, needing a couter signature ensured that at least one other person was in the vicinity when conducting the experiment, and yes, develops a paper trail as Paul highlighted above. Also, the 2 min that it took for each reaction seems to me far less onerous than 30 min each week in a group meeting, which is probably already too long.

  15. leftscienceawhileago Says:

    I think we should just have fewer people doing chemistry.

    Why in the world do we need aspiring law students doing research for some imaginary notion of prestige? That paper you will write that will sit on your boss’s desk until the end of time simply isn’t worth risking your life.

  16. John Spevacek Says:


    Having read your blog for many years, I am well aware of your ongoing concerns about safety and I tip my hat to you for your efforts. The fervor associated with this particular case which has everybody up in arms at present however, will fade despite all efforts to keep the intensity at that level.

    I hadn’t thought about the inherently high turnover rates in academic labs, so maybe maybe my comments are diminished somewhat by this. The point I was trying make (and made it poorly) was that a heavy-handed, one-size fits all approach stuffed down from above is seldom the most effective option, even as it looks good on paper.

    As further support of this, I am greatly impressed with the comments and suggestions made here. If your post serves no other purpose than to passed these ideas on to (a small segment of) research community, it will have accomplished much.

  17. Paul Says:

    I agree with all of that. The “heat” of the Sangji case will certainly fade, but one hopes that the new baseline to which we recede is at least somewhat higher than it was before the accident. It’d be nice to see that someone—anyone—has learned something from this.

  18. CR Says:


    From the example stated, there was no mention of a person, just a fire in a hood. Best advice if there is a fire in a hood…close sash, get out and pull the alarm.

    However, when I say “get out” I mean get everyone out…

    As a former industry chemist, we had fire training, on-line training, safety meetings, safety inspections…and the one piece of advice we always got from the fire department…just get out.

  19. Chemjobber Says:

    CR: I think that’s fair. My thought is that the chemist whose hood it is can/maybe/should be responsible for attempting to fight through one fire extinguisher (10 seconds?)

    And you’re darn right about “get everyone out.” Industry does a much better job about having attendance lists. When I was in academia and senior enough in the group, I appointed myself “last man out” and swept through all my lab’s offices and labs during drills and/or the real thing.

  20. B.A. Brown Says:

    What a lovely suggestion on how to encourage safety in the laboratory! Thank you. I am in huge agreement that simply having to spend time explaining a slide about what safety precautions you took when doing, for example an ortho-lithiation, does really begin to change the attitude. It will encourage new students to ask the questions themselves. If presenting in group meeting their experiments and they cannot answer the questions about safety concerns with a particular experiment, as a mentor/supervisor, you now have a perfect coaching opportunity to correct behaviours/attitudes before a problem arises.

    I feel that, reading the comments and opinions about the safety issues that have come to light over the last three years, the implementation of stricter punishments seems to be met with significant backlash from the community but really the important thing is changing the idea of safe behaviour. If safety is a constant discussion in your lab, then you will be proselytised into making it a natural part of your work, the same way thinking about the mechanism of reaction becomes second nature to organic chemists.

    I have encountered similar attitudes when volunteering with the Red Cross and trying to educate the public on disaster preparedness. The biggest problem is changing their attitude on why preparedness is important. Making it simple to execute and an inherent part of people’s habit you will have more luck. Your suggestion is perfect because it really isn’t “another thing that is taking students away from the lab” but augmenting and using their time “away from lab” more effectively. (On a side note: everyone should be prepared to cover their basic needs following a disaster for a minimum of 72 hours.)

  21. wolfie Says:

    If you think too much on safety, you will achieve that people think purely in economic terms. This is not the purpose of any good academic education.

  22. CR Says:


    I understand your point; however, not everyone is comfortable in a situation like a fire to actually try and put it out – 20 minutes of fire extinguisher training doesn’t make one a firefighter. Even a seasoned chemist may have never actually used an extinguisher. (Kind of like the argument, if I own a gun I know how to use it if someone breaks into my house. Sure I can use the hell out of it on the range, but…).

    What is best, is the person whose hood is on fire to be able to accurately tell the firefighters what actually happened.

  23. Friday chemical safety round-up | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] Sheri Sangji’s death change safety culture? (related Reddit discussion) while ChemBark discussed making safety training a part of group meetings and ScienceGeist tackled teaching safety to undergrads (related: teaching safety and safety […]

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