Graduate Students Launch New Lab Safety Initiative

By Roger AndersonNovember 13, 2017

A group of Northwestern graduate students has started a new safety initiative following a recent trip to DowDuPont, where they interacted with and learned from personnel at the world’s largest chemical company.

“For many of these young researchers, the trip to DowDuPont was their first exposure to how industry handles safety,” says trip organizer Mark Bachrach, a chemical hygiene officer at Northwestern’s Office for Research Safety (ORS). “It was great to see the strong level of interest and discussion among all of the students. The knowledge they learned and brought back to campus will help bring new perspectives to our own future safety initiatives.”

Di Wang and Agnes Thorarinsdottir, both third-year graduate students in the Department of Chemistry, introduced the newly formed Research Safety Student Initiative (RSSI) at ORS’s Quarterly Lab Safety Meeting on November 9. The pair promoted the RSSI website and outlined planning for a University-wide Research Safety Week in February.

“If our workspaces are going to operate more safely, it has to be embraced by the individuals who are in the labs, the grad students and postdocs,” says Peter Stair, chair of chemistry. “Northwestern has a great relationship with DowDuPont and in this instance they’ve helped inspire our students to be leaders in an area that can benefit the University’s research community at large.”

The trip to DowDuPont allowed students — alongside representatives from the University of Minnesota and University of Chicago — to participate in a Lab Safety Academy workshop at the company’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan. The academy covered both the technical aspects of how DowDuPont handles safety as well as the integral parts of its safety culture. All three universities presented overviews of current safety programs as well as frequently encountered challenges. There were also several breakout sessions and time for one-on-one interaction with more than 25 DowDuPont scientists and environmental health and safety experts. The students also toured a subset of DowDuPont’s research and development labs.

“The trip allowed me reconsider how I might conduct my own work in a safer manner and how to better promote safety practices within my research group and in other research laboratories across Northwestern,” says third-year doctoral student Agnes Thorarinsdottir, who works in the lab of T. David Harris, chemistry.

Dow hosted its first Lab Safety Academy workshop in 2012 with the intention of improving the safety culture in academic research space and align it more closely with rigorous industry standards.

After the initial workshop, the University of Minnesota developed a Joint Safety Team (JST) between its Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Material Science Departments. The JST was credited with developing new safety training, helping disseminate safety information, and improving the safety culture at the university.

Following the completion of his PhD in chemistry at Northwestern in 2014, Bachrach saw Minnesota’s JST in action as a postdoctoral fellow. In his new role with ORS, Bachrach is responsible for managing safety within the Chemistry Department while also providing guidance on any chemical safety issues to all University research labs.

“The thought is that a student run safety initiative can have impact in a different way than ORS programming,” says Bachrach. “Students react differently to guidance from their peers and making safety personal is integral to improving lab safety, even in a climate as safety focused as Northwestern.”

After their visit to DowDuPont, the graduate students — who represented the Chemistry, Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Material Science Departments — met to develop a plan of action for launching the RSSI.

“We want to create a framework for increasing the awareness of researchers to safety hazards and induce a more positive mindset toward safety practices,” says Thorarinsdottir, vice president of the RSSI. “As a group, we are focused on promoting a better safety culture within labs and we plan to develop additional training and tools for lab workers in the near future.”