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William Tolman helps write guide for implementing safety cultures at universities

Department of Chemistry Chair William B. Tolman served on a national task force charged with writing a guide for implementing safety cultures at research universities. That guide was released, Monday, April 11, and a companion website focusing on its recommendation was launched. Download the guide.

Seeking to provide a roadmap for university-wide efforts to renew and strengthen a culture of research safety, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ (APLU) Task Force on Laboratory Safety developed a, Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture in Our Universities. The task force also created a companion website intended to make the guide more accessible and allow for the continued sharing of best practices and other information to improve safety at research universities nationwide. 

Designed for university presidents and chancellors who have pledged to commit their university to a renewed culture of research safety, the guide and website include 20 recommendations, each with an analysis of the alignment of the recommendation with other foundational reports, reading lists, tools, strategies, illustrative examples, and/or best practices drawn from a community of stakeholders. These resources were selected to help an appointed campus team navigate the process of strengthening their culture of safety.

“I feel honored to be involved in this task force, which has focused on what I believe to be a critical and important issue,” said Tolman. “I hope that its recommendations are taken seriously by universities across the country. Certainly, our efforts in the Department of Chemistry align closely with the task force’s efforts."

Department of Chemistry initiatives

The University’s Department of Chemistry is committed to improving its culture of safety. Leading the charge is the Joint Safety Team (JST). Since its beginning three years ago, the JST has been lead by graduate student or post-doctorate Laboratory Safety Officers (LSOs) in the departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering & Materials Science (CEMS).

The Joint Safety Team began through a unique partnership with Dow Chemical Company. Dow shared its best-in-class laboratory safety practices, examples, advice, and resources with University of Minnesota students and post-doctorates. This partnership has expanded to include other industries such as Valspar.

The JST initiated a safety campaign, called Safety Starts with U!, which focuses on four key areas—CARE:

  • Compliance: Improve compliance with lab standards on hazardous waste handling, sample and chemical storage, lab cleanliness, and the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • Awareness: Improve awareness of safety hazards, best practices, and available resources around the theme of “Safety Starts with U!”;
  • Resources: Improve the quality of and access to safety resources, including the standardization of laboratory signs, development of safety websites, and PPE such as goggles, lab coats, and gloves;
  • Education: Improve safety training and ongoing education for laboratory safety officers and researchers.

Among the initiatives created by the JST are education campaigns such as safety posters found on the walls throughout both departments, Safety Moments before seminars and meetings, system for anonymous near-miss reporting, laboratory inspections, and training workshops.

In addition to the JST, the department’s Safety Committee, which includes a resource safety specialist from the University’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety, works to educate, train, and inform people about safety-related best-practice policies and procedures, and helps students, staff and faculty with safety issues.

Aligning a national need

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to align a distinct national need with the core purpose of great research universities,” said Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee, who served as co-chair of the APLU task force. “A culture of lab safety is integral to the discovery enterprise and all that is embodied in that process. I hope that each institution embraces this opportunity for positive change."

Mark R. McLellan, vice president for research & dean of the school of graduate studies at Utah State University and APLU task force co-chair added, “The key here is that this task force report will cause change to the campus culture that will inherently create a safer teaching, research and employment environment. And if done well on the campus level, these changes will be embraced broadly across our faculty, staff and students.”

Foundational resource

In breaking the guidelines and website into 20 recommendations, the task force sought to provide a foundational resource that can be used by institutions regardless of the current practices they have in place to ensure research safety. Specifically, the guidelines seek to help research universities:

  1. understand practical steps in implementing a culture of safety in their laboratories;
  2. document their commitment to laboratory safety excellence in order to benchmark against leading practice;
  3. document their compliance with national, state, and institutional laboratory policies;
  4. showcase their dedication to preventing and managing injury of individuals performing laboratory activities; and
  5. limit the liability of college and university leadership by meeting established standards of excellence, including implementing mechanisms to document an institution’s commitment to developing and preserving a culture of safety and compliance.

The report notes that instituting a strengthened culture of research safety starts with the vocal commitment and leadership of a university president; relies on faculty, students, and staff engaged in the discovery enterprise to adopt safer practices; and requires a campus-wide willingness to implement policies and practices that support a culture of safety.

“This terrific report could not come at a better time,” said Holden Thorp, provost at Washington University in St. Louis and chair of the National Academies committee that in 2014 wrote, Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research.

“There is a strong movement building to make laboratory safety and safety culture a prominent part of the leadership agenda of every college and university executive and an indispensable part of science education and practice. The 20 recommendations of the report are all right on target,” he said.

The task force, which APLU created in coordination with the Association of American Universities (AAU), American Chemical Society (ACS), and Council on Governmental Relations (COGR), is composed of senior research officers, environmental and health safety experts, and representatives from industry and national labs. In writing the guide, the task force actively reached out across the university and science communities to hear perspectives on strengthening the laboratory safety culture from over 20 organizations and 25 institutions.

“APLU is committed to collecting resources and best practices that can help our campuses move to a safer culture,” said Kacy Redd, staff lead for laboratory safety at APLU. “The companion website is intended to be a growing resource for implementing a culture of safety. We welcome additions to the toolbox.”

Recent and ongoing efforts by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Board, the American Chemical Society, and the National Academies reflect both concern and focus on the absence of a lab safety culture in universities and colleges. The necessity for institutions to keep their faculty, staff, students, and visitors safe during teaching and research activities is critical for their growth, success, and long-term sustainability.  Significant events in recent years, including the death of a laboratory research assistant and a lab explosion that severely injured a graduate student has raised awareness and highlights the need for a national solution. 

Those interested in contributing to the task force’s growing list of resources that support a culture of safety in teaching laboratories; shops, studios, and stages; teaching classrooms; and the field, can make suggestions by going to The latest additions to the toolbox can be found here.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities is a research, policy, and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening and advancing the work of public universities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. With a membership of 235 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and affiliated organizations, APLU’s agenda is built on three pillars of increasing degree completion and academic success, advancing scientific research, and expanding engagement. Annually, APLU member campuses enroll 4.7 million undergraduates and 1.2 million graduate students, award 1.2 million degrees, employ 1.4 million faculty and staff, and conduct $42.7 billion in university-based research.