U labs aim for a safer environment

The University partnered with an international chemical company.

Chemistry junior Billy Ogden assists graduate student Kate McGarry on Friday in a lab in Kolthoff Hall. McGarry is one of the graduate students leading a safety effort.

Image by Bridget Bennett

Chemistry junior Billy Ogden assists graduate student Kate McGarry on Friday in a lab in Kolthoff Hall. McGarry is one of the graduate students leading a safety effort.

by Cody Nelson

For department heads at the University of Minnesota, safety concerns are a growing issue in academic labs. Anything from lack of cleanliness and preparation to broken glass can create a more dangerous lab environment.

“[It’s] something that I lose sleep over,” Department of Chemistry chair William Tolman said.

To address these concerns, two University science departments, in collaboration with the Dow Chemical Company, have launched a new laboratory safety initiative.

It’s led by graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering and materials science in collaboration with faculty, department heads and Dow, an international chemical company that recruits heavily from the University.

The initiative, which officially kicked off last week, aims to increase safety awareness and improve safety practices at University labs.

Measures taken with the partnership include improved signage in labs, updated emergency contact information and a “Safety Starts with U!” campaign, along with laboratory audits and safety training.

“There aren’t good standards and compliance across the board,” said Kathryn McGarry, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.

Although some faculty members initially thought the safety initiative was unnecessary or too time-consuming, McGarry said support is improving.

There is “a need for a culture change in academia,” she said.


A ‘wake-up call’ for safety

In 2008, a research assistant died of burn injuries in a University of California-Los Angeles chemistry lab. The university’s regents have since updated safety measures.

“What happened at UCLA was very much a wake-up call for many universities,” Tolman said.

Although there have been no deaths or serious injuries in University of Minnesota labs since Frank Bates, head of the University of Minnesota’s CEMS department, started more than 20 years ago, there’s plenty of potential for serious injury.

When Dow approached the University in April with the idea of beginning a safety partnership, both department leaders jumped at the chance to work with a company that “refined the safety culture,” Bates said.

Representatives from Dow first visited University labs to talk to students and faculty and assess where safety gaps were, said Pankaj Gupta, Dow’s senior strategy leader for research and development.

Dow then flew 12 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from the two departments to Dow’s Midland, Mich., location for a two-day workshop to learn how the industry does lab safety, Gupta said.

Once back at the University, there was a push to “be more in-tune with safety,” said Brian Merritt, a doctoral candidate and lab safety officer in CEMS.

Merritt said he and other officers want to bring safety concerns to everybody’s attention by raising awareness and engagement within labs.

Gupta said that safety needs to be improved through a continual dialogue among those involved.

The University is one of three schools taking on a safety partnership with Dow, joining Penn State University and the University of California-Santa Barbara. Gupta said he hopes the current schools will encourage peers to adopt similar safety measures.

“We want this model to be leveraged to other schools.”