Over the past century, chemistry has increased our understanding of the physical and biological world as well as our ability to manipulate it. As a result, most of the items we take for granted in modern life involve synthetic or natural chemical processing.
We acquire that understanding, carry out those manipulations, and develop those items in the chemical laboratory; consequently, we also must monitor and control thousands of chemicals in routine use. Since the age of alchemy, laboratory chemicals have demonstrated dramatic and dangerous properties. Some are insidious poisons.
During the “heroic age” of chemistry, martyrdom for the sake of science was acceptable, according to an 1890 address by the great chemist August Kekulé: “If you want to become a chemist, so Liebig told me, when I worked in his laboratory, you have to ruin your health. Who does not ruin his health by his studies, nowadays will not get anywhere in Chemistry” (as quoted in Purchase, 1994).
Today that attitude seems as ancient as alchemy. Over the years, we have developed special techniques for handling chemicals safely. Institutions that sponsor chemical laboratories hold themselves accountable for providing safe working environments. Local, state, and federal regulations codify this accountability.
Beyond regulation, employers and scientists also hold themselves responsible for the well-being of building occupants and the general public. Development of a “culture of safety”—with accountability up and down the managerial (or administrative) and scientific ladders—has resulted in laboratories that are, in fact, safe and healthy environments in which to teach, learn, and work. Injury, never mind martyrdom, is out of style.
As a result of the promulgation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Laboratory Standard (29 CFR § 1910.1450), a culture of safety consciousness, accountability, organization, and education has developed in industrial, governmental, and academic laboratories. Safety and training programs, often coordinated through an office of environment, health, and safety (EHS), have been implemented to monitor the handling of chemicals from the moment they are ordered until their departure for ultimate disposal and to train laboratory personnel in safe practices.1
Laboratory personnel realize that the welfare and safety of each individual depends on clearly defined attitudes of teamwork and personal responsibility and that laboratory safety is not simply a matter of materials and equipment but also of processes and behaviors. Learning to participate in this culture of habitual risk assessment, experiment planning, and consideration of worst-case possibilities—for oneself and one’s fellow workers—is as much part of a scientific education as learning the theoretical background of experiments or the step-by-step protocols for doing them in a professional manner.2
Accordingly, a crucial component of chemical education at every level is to nurture basic attitudes and habits of prudent behavior so that safety is a valued and inseparable part of all laboratory activities. In this way, a culture of laboratory safety becomes an internalized attitude, not just an external expectation driven by institutional rules. This process must be included in each person’s chemical education throughout his or her scientific career.
Ensuring a safe laboratory environment is the combined responsibility of laboratory personnel, EHS personnel, and the management of an organization, though the primary responsibility lies with the individual performing the work. Of course, federal, state, and local laws and regulations make safety in the laboratory a legal requirement and an economic necessity. Laboratory safety, although altruistic, is not a purely voluntary function; it requires mandatory safety rules and programs and an ongoing commitment to them. A sound safety organization that is respected by all requires the participation and support of laboratory administrators, employees, and students.
The ultimate responsibility for creating a safe environment and for encouraging a culture of safety rests with the head of the organization and its operating units. Leadership by those in charge ensures that an effective safety program is embraced by all. Even a well-conceived safety program will be treated casually by workers if it is neglected by top management.
Direct responsibility for the management of the laboratory safety program typically rests with the chemical
1Throughout this book, the committee uses the word training in its usual sense of “making proficient through specialized instruction” with no direct reference to regulatory language.
2With regard to safe use of chemicals, the committee distinguishes between hazard, which is an inherent danger in a material or system, and the risk that is assumed by using it in various ways. Hazards are dangers intrinsic to a substance or operation; risk refers to the probability of injury associated with working with a substance or carrying out a particular laboratory operation. For a given chemical, risk can be reduced; hazard cannot.