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Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Disposal of Chemicals
1.D.2Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories
Undergraduate chemistry courses are faced with the problem of introducing inexperienced people (frequently in enormous numbers) to the laboratory culture, including the handling of hazardous materials. Although many students come to their first undergraduate course with good preparation from their high school science courses, others may be "chemophobic," having a prejudice against chemicals of all kinds. They must learn to evaluate intelligently the wide range of hazards in laboratories and learn the techniques by which potential dangers can be controlled routinely with negligible risk.
In research universities the primary responsibility for undergraduate laboratory teaching is often assigned to teaching assistants, who may have widely different backgrounds and communication skills. At the same time that they are adapting to their first teaching experience, they are also trying to handle their first graduate courses. Some who are unfamiliar with safe laboratory practice and the proper disposal of chemical waste may have to learn new attitudes and habits at the same time that they are teaching them to the undergraduates. The supervision of teaching assistants and monitoring of their performance must be taken as a special departmental responsibility because the safe, meaningful operation of undergraduate laboratories depends so heavily on them.
In research universities the inherent problems of transmitting good laboratory training to undergraduates can be compounded by the conflicting demands for resources and attention between research and undergraduate teaching. Commitment of the entire faculty to laboratory safety and the responsible disposal of chemicals is a crucial factor in the initiation of all students into the laboratory culture at every level.
1.D.3Academic Research Laboratories
Advanced training in safety is an important component of education through research. Unlike laboratory course work, where training comes primarily from repeating well-established procedures perfected through many years of experience, research often includes the production of new materials by unprecedented methods, which may involve unknown hazards. As a result, academic research laboratories may place an enormous range of processes and products in the hands of young investigators of widely varied scientific experience. Often the transition from undergraduate laboratory course work to the first experience of independent research is too abrupt. If high school and college laboratory work has placed all of the responsibility for safety planning on the teachers and graduate research leaves it all to the student, neophyte researchers will be ill-prepared to face the many real hazards of the research laboratory. Given these circumstances, heavy responsibility rests with the faculty to provide the safest possible environment for research by careful oversight and example. Faculty should pay particular attention to the introduction of first-year graduate students to the research laboratory. To further enhance a good safety environment, many chemistry departments now present regular courses on laboratory safety for incoming graduate students and require that postdoctoral associates show proficiency on a regular safety test before starting laboratory work. Such preparations contribute greatly to the complete professional training required by most chemical companies.
Safety training must be a continuing process; it should become an integral part of the daily activities of laboratory workers and those who are accountable for them. It need not be an arduous task. As a student or laboratory worker learns a new protocol, safe practices relevant to it should also be emphasized in the normal setting of the laboratory, with the careful guidance of a mentor and the shared responsibility of colleagues. Opportunities to encourage and enhance informal safety training through collegial interactions should be pursued vigorously as a valuable way to exchange safety information, convey meaningful guidance, and sustain an atmosphere in which colleagues reinforce each others' good work habits.
Formal safety education for advanced students and laboratory workers should be made as relevant to their work activities as possible. Training that is conducted simply to satisfy regulatory requirements tends to subordinate the relevant safety issues to details associated with compliance. Such bureaucratic safety management has actually worked against fostering positive safety attitudes in many well-experienced laboratory workers and has undermined the credibility of warnings about bona fide hazards by emphasizing pro forma violation of rules.
Although principal investigators and project managers are legally accountable for the maintenance of safety in laboratories under their direction, this activity, like much of the research effort, is distributable. Well-organized academic research groups develop hierarchical structures of experienced postdoctoral associates, graduate students at different levels, undergraduates, and technicians, which can be highly effective in transmitting the importance of safe, prudent laboratory operation. When the principal investigator offers leadership that demonstrates a deep concern for