Even with every safety precaution, accidents can still happen in the lab. Dangerous reactions sometimes occur in the course of doing pioneering research. We can never totally eliminate that risk, but we can ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes others have made. Right now chemists have an opportunity to improve the safety of their labs, but it requires rethinking our approach to sharing information.
A Lab Safety Opportunity
I am currently working on a community-based safety project that depends on sharing of information about “reactions gone wrong” in the lab. Within hours of launching the Pistoia Alliance Chemical Safety Library in late March, we had scores of chemists signed up. This month we passed the 800 registered-users mark, which is absolutely fantastic. But like rubberneckers slowing down on the highway to see what’s going on without helping, almost everyone who has signed up is looking, but few have stepped up and submitted.
Accidents Happen, So Why Not Help?
There are a number of reasons why people don’t feel comfortable sharing information on dangerous reactions. A prevailing concern is fear: Fear of being embarrassed, fear of violating corporate policy, fear of getting into trouble. But let’s be clear. The “trouble” already occurred. Even when a strong safety culture exists, sometimes things go wrong. A real sign of progress is how our community responds to accidents, and what we do to keep them from happening again. The goal must be improved safety for all.
A Challenge for You: Start the Conversation!
When did it become okay stay silent? It is not okay to have the same accident occur over and over again, to different people, in different locations. Keeping reaction hazard information locked up only hurts other chemists. Instead of feeling afraid or helpless, start a conversation within your organization around sharing safety information. Talk to your environmental health and safety departments. Review this effort at your monthly safety meetings. Discuss the process of posting hazardous reaction information with your legal departments. You may be surprised with your organization’s willingness to help. After all, collecting this kind of information in one place will protect chemists at your organization as well. Sharing is the key to improved safety, so let’s start the sharing now.