Friday, January 4, 2013

Partners in Safety

By the time I completed my doctorate, I had lived in five different states and traveled to ten different countries. But the biggest culture shock of all was leaving graduate school and starting work as a researcher for a petrochemical company.

Instead of locking labs for security, our labs were door-less, so that people could leave quickly in an emergency. Not only did I have to confine my work wardrobe to slacks, I also had to make sure my shoes were all-leather, had low heels, and covered my whole foot. (By the way, try finding good work shoes when strappy sandals, ballet flats, and platform heels are all the rage.)

And don’t even get me started on all the procedures for ordering, handling, and disposing of chemicals. At first, I was convinced there was no way to do any actual chemistry at our research facility.

In the years that followed, however, I learned that the safety procedures my company used were part of a culture of safety that permeated the organization. While it could seem overly paranoid (we had signs in the stairwells reminding us to use the handrails), we also did not have any work-related injuries the entire time I worked there.

Which is why I was so happy to read C&EN’s report on The Dow Chemical Company’s partnerships with the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. These partnerships bring together industry professionals, undergrads, grad students, postdocs, faculty, and academic safety staff to implement industry-level safety practices at the universities.

In the true spirit of partnership, Dow and university representatives tour each other’s facilities, identify needs, and see what they can offer. Students and faculty get the resources they need to beef up their safety culture; Dow knows where to look for future employees that possess a true appreciation for safety.
The reviews from the students and faculty are great. Instead of finding the safety culture restrictive, they feel it makes their research more efficient, more effective, and, yes, safer. Safety is becoming an integrated practice, rather than one more chore. And with the universities adopting standard operating procedures, stringent housekeeping practices, and incident reporting systems, the academic labs are starting to mirror the industry and government labs where, statistically, about 40% of their graduates will end up. No more culture shock.
Now if only Dow could do something about women’s shoe fashion. (Platform heels? Really? Wouldn’t it be easier to just break my ankles now?)
Author: Blake Aronson, Ph.D., has worked in industry, academia, and (currently) the ACS Office of Two-Year Colleges. Her views do not represent those of the office or ACS, but they are occasionally shared by others. 

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