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Cautious optimism as society names lab safety a core value
What defines a scientific professional? Subject matter expertise and dedication to excellence are two traits that scientists everywhere would likely endorse. Last December, the American Chemical Society (ACS) officially added another critical item to that list when it made safety one of the society‰??s ‰??core values.‰?? Such high recognition by the world's largest scientific society, speaking to and for its nearly 157,000 members, argues strongly that everyone involved in the scientific enterprise should recognize lab safety as essential to who they are as professionals. Beyond that, it suggests the corollary that scientists should regard safety incidents that result from bad safety practice not as ‰??accidental‰?? bad luck, but as violations of a fundamental professional standard that not only carry professional and reputational consequences but also inflict often grave and irreparable harm on students, lab workers, and bystanders.
ACS‰??s December declaration culminates nearly a decade of concern and advocacy within the society that arose from the 2009 death of 23-year-old research assistant Sheharbano ‰??Sheri‰?? Sangji. A series of safety catastrophes at other major academic institutions in subsequent years strengthened the effort. In each of these cases, investigations ascribed similar root causes: failure to analyze and mitigate risks in advance of experiments and to follow known and accepted safety practices in carrying them out. Investigators also uniformly noted that these problems reflect institutional cultures and scientific supervisors that failed to give safety a high priority.
In late August, as thousands of chemists converged on Washington, D.C., for ACS‰??s national meeting, Neal Langerman, an officer of ACS's Division of Chemical Health and Safety, told me that ‰??the senior leadership of the society is moving aggressively to enhance safety in all elements of the professional development of chemical scientists, at all levels.‰?? Given that ACS members work in many fields and roles across the scientific world, their society‰??s addition of safety to the definition of professionalism could exert broad influence on scientists in many settings. ACS‰??s most recent statement of its mission, vision, and core values also adds that, ‰??Through educational resources, instruction, and mentorship, ACS and its members will promote principles of safety ‰?| throughout pre-college, undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate education.‰?? If successful, influencing educational institutions to make safety and safety education top priorities could both inspire c!
hange in often recalcitrant campus cultures and carry the values of safety consciousness strongly into the future.
The question, of course, is whether these admirable statements are first steps that will truly translate into widespread improvement in consciousness and practice. The years since Sangji‰??s catastrophe have seen considerable action within chemistry and other scientific communities. In some parts of academic science, however, the work is far from complete. The long and sorrowful history of inattention and laxity at far too many institutions demands that attention to safety grow and spread.
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