Important Message to Faculty
We are in the business of education, which is divided into three supporting legs: research, teaching and service. These legs are part of the support structure for the promotion and tenure process for faculty, however I would like to add a fourth leg to this structure, safety. Research, teaching, service and safety should all be evaluated when deciding tenure and promotion. This would be a paradigm shift in the way we commonly approach tenure and promotion of faculty, which is currently decided at many institutions by research only with little emphasis on teaching or service and safety is completely left out of the equation.
The influence a teacher has on a student goes beyond what is found in the textbook or what is taught in class. An educator’s actions are closely watched as the students emulate the actions of their mentor as they strive to advance their education and careers. Many graduate students model themselves after their teachers in hopes of succeeding in research and the academic world just as their mentor did.
Having a student desire to pattern their behavior after you is a great honor that should never be minimized and is instrumental in understanding the vital importance of leading by example when it comes to safety. Think back to when you took your first chemistry class or your first visit to a laboratory. I’m sure you were in awe of the instrumentation, fume hoods, glassware and chemicals. You watched the laboratory staff closely. You watched their mannerisms such as what precautions they took when handling hazardous materials and you then patterned your behavior off of what you witnessed in the laboratory. Now years later you are a faculty member and you have forgotten how closely your actions are watched by your students.
What is the lesson that is being taught to a student when their mentor walks into a laboratory wearing a pair of flip-flops and shorts while drinking a cup of coffee? What is the message that is taught when a graduate student is allowed to make a cluttered mess in their work area, is never asked to replace and segregate chemicals they have removed from storage, is never required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, is never required to clean their dirty glassware and is allowed to eat or drink in the lab? What types of behavior had the student killed while improperly handling a pyrophoric chemical in a UCLA laboratory witnessed her mentor doing? Had she witnessed others handling this material without appropriate PPE and was she simply emulating their actions?
We inspect all laboratories annually and we continue to find personnel wearing sandals, sloppy cluttered workspaces, chemicals not properly segregated, personnel not wearing lab coats, food items in labs and other unsafe practices. The sad truth is we often find that the Principal Investigator of the laboratory is guilty of these same unsafe practices and the students are simply putting into practice what they have learned from their mentor’s actions.
What would happen if the Chemical Hygiene Officer was asked to give his input on all faculty tenure and promotion decisions? What if results of laboratory inspections and laboratory accidents were included in these decisions and tenure and promotion was based on research, teaching, service and safety? We must put an emphasis on laboratory safety and thereby create a safe place for our students, faculty and staff to work and learn.
Accidents occur more frequently in academic laboratories when compared to industrial laboratories. If you have never stepped into a laboratory outside of the academic world, take a trip to one of our nearby industries that houses laboratories, such as Eli-Lilly, and visit one of their labs. Try walking into one of their laboratories while wearing flip-flops, shorts and holding a cup of coffee. What reputation does our institution gain when one of our graduating students accepts a job outside of the academic world and shows up at their lab wearing cut off shorts and sandals, and when asked to go home to change clothes they state “That is what my mentor taught me to wear in a lab at IUPUI”? Always remember that a teacher’s legacy reaches far beyond simply what was taught in the classroom or in the laboratory; their actions and attitudes are often a hidden part of the education process.
As educators I hope this article has reminded you of the importance of setting the example by practicing safe science in your laboratory and the need to follow all laboratory safety rules and regulations. Please don’t ever forget or minimize the great honor it is to have young minds wanting to model themselves after you and please also understand the responsibilities that comes with that honor. I hope and pray that none of you ever have to live with the horror of a student being seriously injured because of unsafe laboratory practices that they learned from you.
Click here to view an excellent video summarizing the importance of laboratory safety by Holden Thorp, Provost at Washington University in St. Louis.