Creating a culture of safety in the summer research lab

Are you getting ready for summer research? Or perhaps you’ve already started with your summer students. Make sure you start the summer by creating a culture of safety.


During the academic year, I spend half my time in teaching organic chemistry laboratory, and I talk day-in, day-out about safety in the lab. Wear your goggles! Don’t dump that down the drain!

Every student needs to know that safety is the number one priority in every chemistry research lab.

But I spend precious little time talking to my research students about safety and waste disposal in my research lab. Maybe its because I’m a biochemist and I work in water most of the time…with chemicals that are generally biologically compatible…but really folks – that isn’t an excuse. Every student needs to know that safety is the number one priority in every chemistry research lab. Especially in the summer – when students are working longer hours, and they aren’t always under your eagle-eye of supervision.

Who’s your hygiene officer?

No, not your hygienist. Your chemical hygiene officer – the person responsible for waste disposal, the eye washes and safety showers, the person that ensures your institution is in compliance with federal law…

Do you students know the CHO? Can they approach him/her with questions and concerns? Perhaps your CHO provides department wide safety training? Regardless, I still argue that you need to do a lab-specific safety training that deals with the chemicals you commonly encounter.

Why should you care?

Sometimes a little shock and awe is totally worth it. We all have our grad school stories…mine, I remember when a THF still blew up, and blew out the windows on one entire side of the chemistry building. Yup. It wasn’t my THF still…I’m a biochemist, remember? But the explosion was large enough to be felt on the 6th floor. So, just because you work with water and bacteria all day – that doesn’t mean you’ll never encounter an emergency!

This video – made by the CSB (Chemical Safety Board) is very well done. It’s 24 minutes covering three separate incidents: an organolithium at UCLA, heavy metal poisoning at Darthmouth and the Texas Tech explosion. The video is professional and effective.

What should I wear?

Be explicit with your students about what kind of personal protective equipment is required in your lab, and show them how to figure out what they need to protect themselves. Send them on an SDS scavenger hunt for one of the chemicals you commonly use – don’t assume they will remember their lessons from organic chemistry lab. Teach them how to find an SDS – I use sigmaaldrich.com – but use your favorite method.

Send them on an SDS scavenger hunt for one of the chemicals you commonly use…

And while we are talking about SDS’s have you seen this article – Safety Data Sheets – Information that could save your life by Brian Rohrig. It first appeared in ChemMatters late in 2015, and it’s good. I make it required reading for my students. The article is written to a general audience, and it is easily accessible to undergraduates.

Can this go down the drain?

Hazardous waste disposal is confusing and expensive. Students don’t know how to tell when something is “hazardous” or not…which is why I have phosphate buffer in my hazardous waste bottle. Do yourself a favor – make a list of your top 20 chemicals/reagents and how each is disposed of after use then laminate and post that list over the waste bottle.

Teach your students how to label a waste bottle – remember, that start date of waste collection is important! And show them how to  fill out the label after each addition. If your department doesn’t already have one, make a general label for a waste bottle – make a million copies and keep them in a drawer near the waste station. I use something like this.

Students don’t know how to tell when something is “hazardous” or not…which is why I have phosphate buffer in my hazardous waste bottle.

If you do work with biologicals like I do, the list of what can and cannot go down the drain is even more important. I find this summary to be helpful.  By the way…ethanol is flammable and can never  go down the drain, in any concentration. Am I the only one that finds that really annoying?

Don’t assume they’ve read the safety manual

Safety manuals are great, and I think students should read them. Here is a great one from ACS that is for students – a little older, but the basic info is still great. There is a companion volume for faculty – just in case you need a refresher. It is the kind of stuff that I cover during Organic Chemistry lab during the academic year, but students should always be reminded of. And even if they read the manual, they also need to see the safety rules in action in your research space. And give them a quiz – a quiz that is relevant to your research and the chemicals they will be handling every day. Then you will know they are prepared.


6e164a_67ee223822044abdb5e42e3a6cbdb8d0~ Dr. Keri Colabroy is an associate professor of chemistry at Muhlenberg College. And she’s got one week of vacation before summer research starts!

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