Culture of Safety and Green Chemistry: Is There a Connection?

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Contributed by Marta Gmurczyk, Manager, ACS Safety Programs

In 2009, just a year after I had been appointed to serve as the ACS staff liaison for the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS), the entire safety community was devastated to learn about a tragic accident where a young researcher at the UCLA died from burn injuries she suffered while working with a pyrophoric solution of tert-Butyllithium. More accidents in educational settings followed, and calls for changes in the safety education processes and safety culture were becoming increasingly vocal, both within and outside the American Chemical Society.

The ACS Committee on Chemical Safety recognized this need and formed the Safety Culture Task Force, inviting partners from a number of ACS committees and divisions to join an effort to identify the elements and best practices of a good safety culture; offer specific recommendations that could be used by universities and colleges to strengthen their safety cultures; and identify tools and resources that would be beneficial to advancing these efforts. The final report, “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions,” was published in 2012 and identified the following elements of a strong safety culture:

  • Leadership and Management of Safety
  • Teaching Basic Laboratory and Chemical Safety through Continuous and Integrated Safety Education
  • Safety Attitudes, Safety Awareness and Safety Ethics
  • Learning from Incidents
  • Collaborative Interactions that Help Build Strong Safety Cultures
  • Promoting and Communicating Safety

The report also made 17 specific recommendations to create vibrant, effective safety cultures in academic institutions. One of the recommendations called for ensuring that graduating chemistry students have strong skills in laboratory safety and strong safety ethics by integrating safety education into each laboratory session, as well as evaluating these skills throughout the educational process. The report also recommended implementing hazard analysis procedures in all lab work, especially laboratory research.

These recommendations resonated with the academic community as indicated by the overwhelming interest in the report — over 4,000 copies were distributed — but also uncovered needs for additional guidance and resources. One faculty member summed it up well after a conversation about safety education, saying, “If I knew what to teach, I would.” Educators have made significant efforts to reduce risks in teaching laboratories by using less hazardous chemicals and more controlled procedures to make environments much safer for students, but will such education prepare graduates for less controlled, riskier laboratory work in their professions? The consequences of not integrating safety training into chemical education might not be felt directly by the academic community, but its impacts are significant on graduates and the institutions that employ them.

Many companies have accepted the fact that they need to invest time and energy into developing safety training courses for their new bachelor's degree employees. Likewise, middle and high school chemistry/science teachers are responsible and accountable for the safe conduct of their students – yet safety education is not integrated in their pedagogical preparation. Multiple incidents involving demonstrations with methanol that have seriously burned numerous students and teachers; these are accidents that could have been prevented if teachers had a foundation on the technical aspects of chemical safety.

To assist teachers and faculty members with integrating safety education into their students’ chemistry curriculum, the committee published “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools” and “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Academic Institutions.”

The well-established ACS publication “Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories” has also been revised to provide students with an overview of the key issues related to the safe use of chemicals during the first two years of undergraduate chemistry education. The publication shifts one’s focus from safety based on rules to safety taught through the four RAMP principles: 1) recognize the hazards, 2) assess the risks of the hazards, 3) minimize the risks of the hazards, and 4) prepare for emergencies. Such a safety education emphasizes understanding hazards in terms of scientific principles, including reactions, thermodynamics, structure-activity relationships, assessment of risk of hazards, practices to minimize risks of hazards, and preparations for emergencies. This approach develops students’ ability to understand the principles and applications of safety and teaches them to think critically about safety to make decisions that will keep themselves and those around them safe.

ACS also responded to requests made by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) after its investigation of a serious accident at Texas Tech University in 2010 where a chemistry graduate student was seriously injured. The Board noted in the report that “current standards on hazard evaluations, risk assessment and hazard mitigation are geared toward industrial settings and are not transferrable to the academic research laboratory environment” and asked ACS to help. ACS accepted the CSB recommendations and developed the guide and tools to assess and control hazards in a research laboratory. We have come a long way in the past 10 years. ACS’s engagement with safety education contributed to a desired shift from a culture of compliance to a culture of safety where safety concepts and practices are more integrated in education and research.

Recently, ACS has elevated safety as a core value of the Society, and ACS Publications initiated a new safety reporting requirement that states that journal authors must “emphasize any unexpected, new, and/or significant hazards or risks associated with the reported work.”

I am the first full-time staff member to manage ACS safety programs. The position is housed in the newly-created Scientific Advancement Division, which also houses the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI). The proximity of these two programs naturally creates a connection between them, which I am committed to exploring.

In the emerging culture of safety, both chemistry education and research practices incorporate the explicit analysis of hazards and risks related to any laboratory activity. Both the culture of safety and the culture of green chemistry also call for this mindset, where critical assessment and preparation is built into planning with a purpose to minimize unexpected or potentially hazardous outcomes. Reflecting a growing awareness of green chemistry thinking, the culture is also shifting from regulating and banning, to one where products are designed to be synthesized in a way that reduces or eliminates the use of hazardous substances in the first place.

With the renewed ACS emphasis on safety come new opportunities to connect green chemistry to safety culture efforts. In the end, both efforts strive to lower risks to human health in the laboratory and make chemistry more sustainable for the planet.

If you wish to find out more about the ACS safety resources or share your thoughts on connections between green chemistry and the culture of safety, please contact me at

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