Anyone who keeps up with C&E News knows that academic institutions are lagging behind industry in regards to safety culture. When I revise my in-house lab manuals and handouts after the current semester, I will be making what seems like a small no-brainer change that I suspect might have a disproportionally large impact. Safety information is regularly presented to students in the form of semester briefings, text written into specific lab procedures, and pre-lab lectures. An exam, quiz, or lab discussion question might ask students to recall specific safety information, but more often the "check" is whether or not practices are being followed in the lab, and the reality is that they are not followed nearly so often as we might hope. I am wondering if a simple change to my students' routine lab notebook write-ups might improve the latter.
My instructions for lab notebook write-ups across all levels include certain headings/sections: Name, Date, Title, Objective, Reaction Scheme (for synthetic experiments), Reagent Table, Procedure, etc. The first few sections are typically to be completed when the lab procedure is read, before the students come to lab. My checks on this practice vary across levels, but in all cases I am usually giving a short prelab briefing, which includes safety concerns specific the day's experiment, and students are often taking additional notes on techniques, procedural alterations, etc.
My instructions for lab notebook write-ups are going to include specific (required) sections, probably just after the Objective section, for Safety and Waste Disposal. As prompts, my instructions will tell the students to identify the most significant hazard(s) associated with the day's experiment. They will then need to address two steps taken to mitigate the risk from that hazard and two steps taken in the event of a problem associated with that hazard. (This approach is abbreviated from the RAMP acronym addressed in C&E NEWS 5-2-16, p. 35, which inspired the currant rant.) For Waste Disposal, they will be prompted to identify proper destinations for all of the consumables used in the experiment. The students will be able to draw this information from the initial semester safety briefing, the provided lab procedure, and/or my prelab lecture. I expect that a sample from a general chemistry titration experiment might look something like this:
Safety: 1.0 M NaOH(aq) is corrosive. Wear goggles and promptly clean up any small spills. For exposures, wash promptly with copious water. Use eyewash if splashed in the face.
Waste Disposal: Dilute NaOH can go down the drain with water to rinse. (OR) Silver chloride mixtures go in the waste bottle marked for silver. Extra silver nitrate stock solution goes in the bottle marked for recycled silver nitrate.
When I mark the carbon-copies of notebook pages, I will be a assigning a couple of points to these sections just like I would any other section of the notebook writeup. I find that this practice usually gets the attention of even the less-engaged students within a few weeks.
In upper-level classes and in the research lab, the students work more often from the primary literature rather than from provided instructions. In these instances, I am expecting the students to glean the appropriate safety and waste information from the content of their earlier classes, the literature they are working from, and, in the case of the the class labs, from my pre-lab briefing. My hope is that, in either context, should the student find him or herself at a loss for what to write in the Safety or Waste section, that will prompt him or her to seek additional information from reference materials and/or conversation with me.
I contend that requiring students to actively and, as a matter of routine, identify hazards, mitigation steps, emergency plans, and disposal destinations (as opposed to just passively reading or hearing about them) might have a significant impact on both their practices in the lab and their long-term safety habits. This approach seems, at this point at least, to have the possibility for substantial improvement from a minimal additional investment of instructor time.
For my research lab students, I am also working on a more involved set of guidelines they will hopefully be able to use to rate the "safety level" of an experiment, similar to the approach outlined in the ACS publication "Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories." The safety level will then indicate (in addition to appropriate routine safety precautions) whether the experiment is something I need to be present for in the lab, whether it is something we need to talk through and plan together, or whether it is something they can do more or less independently. These guidelines will be tailored to the kind of research we do, but it will include questions about solvent volumes, reagent toxicity levels, how closely the experiment relates to experiments they have done in the teaching labs and previously in the research lab, and whether or not there are any specific reactivity hazards associated with the reagents.