Graduate students and postdoctorates lead laboratory safety efforts

Kickoff of ‘Safety Starts with U!’ campaign, Monday, September 24 From safety-themed posters, to informative safety moments before meetings and seminars, creation of a safety website, and an increased emphasis on wearing proper safety gear in laboratories, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are taking the lead in improving and sustaining the safety culture in the University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering's chemistry and chemical engineering laboratories. This fall, they are kicking off a new safety campaign, “Safety Starts with U!”

Unique partnership with Dow

Through a unique partnership with the Dow Chemical Company, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from the departments of Chemistry (CHEM) and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS) are providing the leadership to a first-ever pilot program to improve safety awareness and practices. While the Dow Chemical Company is not providing a financial donation to the University of Minnesota for this safety initiative, it is sharing its best-in-class laboratory safety practices, examples, advice, and resources with U of M students and post doctorates. Last spring, Dow sponsored a two-day safety training for students and faculty at its facility in Michigan, and since then, it has been providing ongoing advice to the students and post doctorates.

“Ensuring safe working environments in research laboratories is both a challenge as well as an opportunity for universities everywhere,” said Pankaj Gupta, Ph.D., senior strategy leader for research and development at Dow Chemical Company, who along with others on the Dow team has been collaborating with the two U of M departments. “Through this safety partnership with the University of Minnesota, we expand our relationship by leveraging our strength in laboratory safety,” he said.

This safety partnership will benefit the University of Minnesota and has the potential to help other universities across the country as well, notes Professor Frank Bates, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. 

"I am very pleased to partner with the Dow Chemical Company in this critical activity, which brings safety training and practice to the forefront in the university setting," Bates said. "Dow's leadership in assisting universities strengthen their commitment to safety will yield long lasting benefits to the academic enterprise nationwide." 

Student- & postdoctoral-led Joint Safety Team

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the two departments have formed a Joint Safety Team (JST), which comprises 62 Laboratory Safety Officers (LSOs) and a number of interested graduate students from the two departments. The JST's safety campaign focuses on four key areas—CARE:

  • Compliance: improve compliance with lab standards on hazardous waste handling, sample and chemical storage, lab cleanliness, and the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • Awareness: improve awareness of safety hazards, best practices, and available resources around the theme of “Safety Starts with U!”;
  • Resources: improve the quality of and access to safety resources, including the standardization of laboratory signs, development of safety websites, and PPE such as goggles, lab coats, and gloves; and
  • Education: improve the training and ongoing education of laboratory safety officers and researchers.

The JST has developed a number of short-term and long-term recommendations for improving safety practices. These recommendations will act as a guidebook to improving the safety culture at the University. 

"We identified areas of safety that needed improvement and devised a list of ways to address those areas,” said Kathryn “Kate” McGarry, a CHEM graduate student and chair of the JST Administrative Committee.

“The JST will be working closely with our department chairs, personnel from the University’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety (DEHS), and members of Dow Chemical Company to implement these recommendations. Our motivation and actions hopefully will encourage the rest of our community to join us in establishing a better culture of safety,” she said. 

The short-term recommendations will be implemented this fall. They include creating and posting new laboratory signs that emphasize PPE requirements, potential hazards in the lab, and guidelines on how to make the laboratories safer places to conduct research.

“Safety Starts with U!” posters will be created and strategically posted in the departments. 

“It's important for us to cultivate a culture of safety here at the U,” said Brian Merritt, a CEMS graduate student and chair of the JST Public Relations Committee.

“This effort began with the DOW partnership, and is continuing now with our safety campaign. These posters are the first step in establishing the importance of a safe environment,” he said. 

Other plans include conducting Safety Moments at the start of all departmental seminars and group meetings; publishing Safety Notes in the departments’ weekly email newsletters; conducting the first-ever departmental cleanup week; writing, evaluating, and sharing laboratory-specific safe operating procedures; and sending monthly emails on safety learning experiences.

Long-term, the JST will focus on maintaining the safety campaign.

Short- and long-term impacts

“This campaign addresses the need to improve the culture of safety in our laboratories in proactive, collaborative, and direct ways,” said Professor William Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “The fact that it is being led by the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers is terrific. Their energy and creative ideas are already having a profound impact,” he said.

What is learned in this pilot project could be shared across the University. 

“The Department of Environmental Health and Safety is committed to learning from this innovative program and sharing what we have learned from this experience with others across the campus,” said Craig Moody, director of the DEHS. “The students involved in this program should be very proud in knowing they will have an impact on the health and safety of thousands of students and staff in the years to come.” 

Safety campaign kickoff, Monday, September 24

The JST’s kickoff for its safety campaign is planned for 4 p.m. Monday, September 24, in 100 Smith Hall. This is an opportunity to learn more about the campaign, the partnership with Dow Chemical Company, and plans for improving and sustaining the safety culture in the departments. Refreshments will follow in the Smith Hall lobby where there also will be a number of educational booths. There will be an opportunity for students to win personal protection equipment. All faculty, graduate students, and post doctorates are invited to attend.