A few clarifying comments, and then an opinion:
First, just to be clear, any undergraduate who is being paid for a summer of research or as an undergraduate TA (or in any other lab-related capacity) is considered an employee and therefore must undergo the appropriate OSHA-directed training related to the institution’s Chemical Hygiene Plan (29 CFR 1910.1450). And, undergraduates who are participating in a research project (probably for credit, but presumably not being paid) need to have some appropriate training in general about laboratory safety and with regard to the specific hazards of chemicals and procedures that they will encounter in the research lab. At the very least, it seems that this level of training should be the same as the CHP training for employees, and then more instruction related to the specific lab hazards just noted. It would seem to put a research mentor, department chair, or other university administrator in an awkward position to explain to a parent or a prosecutor that a student was treated with any less concern with regard to lab safety than an employee. Indeed, a student (by definition) is a novice in the laboratory which demands a higher level of attention with regard to ensuring that they have the instruction to allow them to function safely in a research laboratory. This, in part, is what the UCLA incident is all about: the necessary training of someone working in a research lab (regardless of status as a student or employee – although the legal aspects of the UCLA incident are rooted in OSHA violations.)
So, what level of training is necessary, and how is this to be effected? These are the questions that Bob Hill and I contemplated as we wrote our textbook (to which Stefan refers below).
[Disclaimer: I am always reluctant to discuss our book, “Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students”, on this forum since I have a financial, vested interest and I believe listserves should not function to promote commercial interests. I hope readers will indulge the comments below. We wrote a textbook to address exactly what we saw as a void in the available resources for chemical educators. It is a long, 450-page answer to the question: What should undergraduate chemistry majors know?]
The answer to the central question required a textbook. That, alone, suggests a long list. Indeed, when I shared a draft of the table of contents (about 70 topics) with my own chemistry major juniors/seniors about five years ago, they confirmed that all of the topics seemed like reasonable “content” for safety instruction for an undergraduate chemistry major. Of course, since our educational system (and our book) is stratified into “layers” of introductory, intermediate, and advanced topics (courses) it is reasonable to suggest that the expected knowledge level for students is related to their status as a BS major, a BA major, a chemistry minor, or a non-chemistry science major taking courses in general chemistry and (probably) organic chemistry.
To speak to the question that started this thread - “What should a student working in an undergraduate research lab know with regard to safety?” - the answer will vary depending upon the project, of course. Traditionally, students often did not start on a research project until they were juniors or seniors and we could have expected that that had encountered “some” safety instruction in introductory and intermediate courses. The degree to which this safety instruction varies across the country (and world, as international students also populate our campuses) is considerable. Today, we sometimes have freshman working in research labs (or even high school students!) and we should expect only the most modest safety background for these students.. Obviously, any thoughtful and responsible research mentor will have to gauge a student’s prior safety instruction and then supplement this with the idiosyncratic topics tuned to the research project IN ADDITION TO the nominal CHP training.
Some institutions have stand-alone courses (usually 1-2 credits) about laboratory safety. These are appropriate and laudable efforts and they provide a central location for documented safety instruction of a generic nature. Other institutions have instituted some online training package that nominally exposes the students to an appropriate set of safety topics and then tests them to further document what was learned. This, too, is an effort better than nothing. My own experience with such “packages” (in my capacity as a volunteer firefighter where such training is common) is that it nominally raises an awareness about a topic but otherwise conveys only the most basic and test-able information. In the long run, while serving this “awareness” training, its main purpose seems more likely to provide an organization with an argument that “the person was trained” with regard to some future lawsuit. (CYA for the organization.)
So, what is a better way to address this situation? How can we provide the best, reasonable safety instruction to students?
Bob and I consider safety instruction to be an essential component of every chemistry laboratory course and we believe that, like other skill and content areas (such as “problem solving”) this needs to be embedded in every laboratory-based course. There is much discussion these days about fostering the “culture of safety”. To do this, safety needs to be an integral part of every lab experiment and it needs to be presented to the student on a consistent and regular basis so that it is an inherent and primary consideration that simply becomes part of experimental science. This content and message can only be absorbed by the students when safety instruction is pervasive in the curriculum. Thus, our book is designed to be embedded in all courses that have a laboratory component and it is written with the three “layers” described above in mind.
So, if I were to take on a research student, I would first assess their general level of safety knowledge and awareness based on what courses they had already taken. (At our institution, where all 70 sections of the book are addressed over the course of four years, this assessment is easy since I know what sections have been covered in which courses.) Then, based on the specific chemical and procedural hazards that they will encounter in a particular project, I can assign particular topics (such as working with high vacuum, cryogenics, reactive materials, etc.) to supplement their prior knowledge. And, all of this instruction should be documented.
A comprehensive safety instruction program distributed consistently over the course of four years produces an undergraduate chemistry major ready for graduate school and industry. Were this to happen nationwide, we would have no need, for example, for the programs now being instituted in some graduate programs to “teach safety”. Nor would our industry partners bemoan the poor preparation that they see in their new hires. More importantly, we would be producing a generation of graduates who have a safety consciousness that will protect them for the rest of their careers.
All of this is more ambitious than the answers most often seen in response to Stefan’s four questions originally posed. In ways that I will not describe here, all of this can be accomplished with only a marginal intrusion into lab time. I know too that many readers of this listserve are safety folks (in academia or elsewhere) who are not on the faculty; it is the faculty who need to decide how to adjust their curriculum to embed more safety instruction. (If you think teaching students is hard; try changing faculty!)
Again, I apologize for the seeming self-promotion of our textbook. It is surely possible to embed safety instruction across the chemistry curriculum without using our textbook but we wrote the book to facilitate this culture change..
P.S. Bob and I are now preparing the second edition of LSCS. We would appreciate any feedback, comments, or suggestions. Contact me privately, of course.
David C. Finster
Professor, Department of Chemistry
University Chemical Hygiene Officer
I’m really enjoying the feedback so far- thanks to all who have responded, and for those who may still- I appreciate this forum!
It appears that the Hill/Finster text gets is getting popular- I’m hoping to use it too. Good job, Bob & David .
Stefan Wawzyniecki, CIH, CHMM
This topic probably has come up before, but I am interested in how other colleges & universities address UG lab safety training. This would not be for UGs in research labs, who may be getting a stipend or credit.
1. Do they attend the same training offered by EH&S for all lab workers?
2. Do their names get entered in the same database?
3. Does your institution offer a full day introductory lab safety seminar?
4. Does your institution offer a one credit course for UGs in lab safety?
Thanks for the responses. Let me know if you are a large school or small college- that may impact answers.
-Stefan Wawzyniecki, CIH, CHMM
University of Connecticut
Previous post | Top of Page | Next post