Dear Chemists: Please Be Safe

It is no secret that I am a big fan of safety. Ask anyone who has ever worked with me. I had very little compunction telling my PhD supervisor, at the University of Alberta, to put on safety glasses and not to drink coffee in the lab. But I was lucky, my supervisor did take safety seriously. Many of my fellow graduate students worked with HF – something that no one in the group took lightly. We all were aware of the dangers and the first aid measures associated with HF. But there were still overall knowledge gaps in safety. For instance, my supervisor didn’t know that I was regularly working with tert-butyllithium, a compound that was responsible for the death of a research at UCLA. I have already written about my thoughts on this safety incident and my own observations.

But again, I find myself opening up the pages of my Chemical and Engineering News to read again about another tragic accident in another chemistry lab. This time, a post-doctoral researcher was caught in an explosion and she tragically lost her arm. The details of this case make me indescribably sad. This was PREVENTABLE! There were plenty of near misses that were reported earlier, but no corrective action was taken. There was the general understanding that flammable gases create explosive mixtures. But I don’t want to dwell on that. What I want is for academic researchers to change their attitude toward safety. I don’t want it to change because of the fear of punishment (jail time, fines, job loss etc.). I want it to change because it is the right thing to do. Here I write an open letter to my fellow chemists.

Dear Fellow Chemists, Chemists-in-Training, and Other Chemistry Enthusiasts, 

It is time to change our image and I am calling on each of you to make it your mission to do so. I have been to many chemistry demos at science open houses, science centres, and many other events geared toward engaging the public to like chemistry. There always seems to be this view of chemists as the “science clowns” with big explosions and over-the-top reactions. They’re flashy and cool. But what I have learned in studying chemistry over the last 14 years is that flashy reactions are generally a sign of poor, out-of-control chemistry. A good reaction is one where the heat and pressure changes are well controlled and nothing very exciting appears to happen. Somehow though, we all sit around, laughing about all these near misses, each “one-upping” the previous story. Haha, chemistry is so awesome. But here’s the rub: the joke’s on us. 

Chemistry is awesome. But it isn’t loud bangs and big fires that make it awesome. It is being able to sift through a pile of data gas chromatograph data and demonstrate conclusively that the accelerant in a particular arson case was gasoline. It is being able to make a drug that treats HIV and drastically improves the lives of people suffering from the illness. 

PIs: you are the managers in your lab. You have the responsibility to make changes in the attitude of your trainees toward safety. We learn from our mentors. Create a culture of safety and your trainees will take that attitude with them to where ever they go to next. 

Trainees: this is for all of you undergrads, grads, post-docs, and research assistants. You know what you’re working with. Is it safe? Do you feel comfortable doing this work? Do you know what the risks are? Do you have all the safety equipment? Is it in proper working order? Are you sure? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, DON’T DO THE WORK! You have the power to refuse to be unsafe, regardless of whether you are in academia or industry. In industry the phrase “I don’t feel safe doing that” is a magical phrase that will result in immediate action. I know that we often feel that our supervisors in the academy have total control and that to countermand their instructions is to commit career suicide. But ask yourself, would your supervisor really want to let you get hurt? No! It is possible to be safe and still meet your supervisor’s expectations. 

Chemists of all levels: let’s stop demonstrating chemistry as nothing but bangs and explosions. It creates an attitude that those are normal. We are not science clowns. We are changing the world, one molecule at a time. So let’s all be safe. We take our research seriously, let’s take our safety seriously.

Sincerely,

Dr. Brenna Brown – an advocate for chemical safety 

 

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