Academic research is a large and highly competitive enterprise, with more than 110,000 graduate students and postdocs conducting research in universities across the United States. Lab groups are often faced with tremendous pressure to get published, secure funding, and pursue innovative discoveries. But as students and faculty drive to accomplish these goals, they also must ensure that a culture of safety and responsibility exists within their laboratories.
The drive to produce first holds true for industrial labs as well. However, industry generally adheres to a more stringent and proactive set of regulatory and cultural safety expectations than their academic counterparts. The focus here is on one of the greatest safety risks in any lab: reactive chemicals.
Uncontrolled or unexpected chemical reactions not only have the potential to cause property damage and environmental harm, but also serious injury and physical harm. There have been several high-profile laboratory events in academia. For instance, in 2008, a student died after sustaining severe burns from a pyrophoric material. In 2010, a graduate student lost three fingers and sustained burns to his face and hands when a chemical he was working with detonated.
Investigations into incidents such as this typically point to larger systemic errors in lab safety procedures and protocols.
The good news is that these incidents are avoidable by effective use of reactive chemical hazard assessment programs. Such programs help identify potential hazards in the lab and eliminate risks, creating a safer environment for lab members.
Essential elements of a reactive chemical hazards program
A lab’s reactive chemical hazards program will address three key goals:
- Prevent circumstances that put people, the environment, equipment, institutions, and the public at risk.
- Ensure that individuals working in the lab understand the inherent potential energy in chemicals and operations, and the conditions under which that energy can be accidentally released.
- Make sure that the “owners” of the project, process, or lab have a thorough understanding of their chemistry and processes.
Best practices for conducting experiments involving reactive chemicals
Before beginning any project, it is critical to evaluate the lab, process, or project. Researchers can do this by compiling the physical properties and reactivity information of the chemicals they’re using. It is also critical for researchers to put time and effort into understanding the chemicals they’ll be working with. They must investigate the conditions and worst-case scenarios under which the potential energy of these components can be accidentally released. Labs should have mitigation plans in place for each of those worst-case scenarios.
Lab safety best practices
For more information on how to safely handle reactive chemicals, visit the Dow Lab Safety Academy at http://safety.dow.com. The Dow Chemical Company recently launched the website with the goal of freely sharing its best practices for lab safety. While the primary goal was to reach academic labs, the resource is available to industry researchers as well.
The Dow Lab Safety Academy is part of a larger outreach initiative that Dow launched in early 2012 on the heels of an eye-opening industry report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which highlighted the potential hazards associated with conducting chemical research at academic institutions.
Dow’s educational platform now includes more than three dozen videos addressing a variety of real-life scenarios, grouped under four lab safety categories. The website also provides a collection of useful documents such as a chemical reactivity worksheet and an incident alert template.
Lab safety is within reach
Armed with educational resources and assessment programs, labs can go a long way toward implementing higher safety standards. It is indeed possible to perform cutting-edge research while maintaining the highest standards of safety; the two do not have to pull in opposite directions. Ultimately, by learning from past incidents and making a strong commitment to a hazard analysis, academic lab safety has a very bright future.
Lori Seiler of The Dow Chemical Company is Associate Director for Environmental Health & Safety for Dow Research and Development. She has been closely involved in Dow’s university lab safety initiative and the creation of the Dow Lab Safety Academy; http://safety.dow.com.