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Safety First is No Accident 

By Mike Marvel, PhD Chemist and Team Leader

Safety First describes the vision and goals that all science instructors, lab managers and administrators share for science labs. We all say that safety always comes first. But what does this mean in practice? The following policies and procedures will help you transform this slogan from a vision into a reality and ensure safety in science labs.

The Culture of Safety

Safety First is above all an attitude or culture that must be established and nurtured. The culture of science or lab safety is a shared responsibility that depends on all individuals working together to protect themselves, each other, the students, and indeed the community. The administration, faculty and staff, the students and the community all benefit from the success of the Safety First philosophy. The process of ensuring lab safety requires that all individuals recognize their unique roles and carry out their assigned functions. While the main goal of a Safety First culture is to prevent or reduce accidents and injuries, the long-term benefits may be even more important. Safety First will be the students’ vision of science throughout their lives!

General Safety Responsibilities

The administrators, faculty and staff must provide leadership and policies to establish a culture of safety. They all share the responsibility for maintaining a safe lab environment. The administrators have to establish and enforce a safe working environment. Lab managers have to purchase and provide all required personal protective equipment (PPE) and other necessary safety supplies. Science instructors are responsible for what takes place during a lab session. They supervise students in the classroom and lab, provide adequate instructions and warn students of the possible dangers involved in performing laboratory activities. 

Most states and/or the federal government require colleges to have a written safety manual, called a Chemical Hygiene Plan, summarizing the policies and procedures for the use of laboratory chemicals. The safety manual should include general laboratory rules and procedures, safety and personal protective equipment requirements, spill and accident procedures, chemical storage rules and requirements, inspection procedures, employee safety training, processes for evaluating and monitoring chemical exposure, and emergency response.

The Safety Contract

The importance of lab safety must be consistently reinforced. A laboratory safety contract or agreement is the foundation of the college science safety program. Students are required to follow all safety rules and instructions provided by the college and the teacher. Signing the safety contract signifies that students have read the information, understand the rules, and agree to abide by the safety requirements in the science laboratory. Students have a responsibility to come to class prepared for the laboratory activity. Failure to carefully read and understand lab instructions is a leading cause of lab accidents. Students must wear all required PPE, including safety glasses or goggles and chemical-resistant gloves and aprons, as directed by the instructor.

Reviewing Lab Activities 

Careful planning of science lab activities is the cornerstone of a successful Safety First culture. Science instructors should continually review all lab activities to identify possible hazards, assess risk, develop appropriate safety precautions, and evaluate their success. The science department should discuss any “near misses” in the science labs at its regular meetings. Did a student accidentally inhale when trying to waft an odor? Was there adequate ventilation in the biology lab during a dissection activity? While none of these close calls may have resulted in injury, illness or damage, they may reveal shortcomings and suggest possible improvements in safety policies and procedures. 

Follow a Safety Checklist 

Some experiments or demonstrations present greater hazards than others. When working with flammable solvents, concentrated acids and reactive metals, always go through a “safety checklist” before performing the lab activity. In the case of flammable solvents, the following steps should be checked off to ensure that all safety precautions have been followed: 

  • There are no flames or sparks in the lab. 

  • The solvent bottles have been capped and removed from the work area. 

  • Any glassware has been placed on a flame-resistant surface. 

  • The location of the nearest fire extinguisher is known and handy.

Safety checklists are valuable tools for ensuring that Safety First is no accident!

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