Penn State and Dow Chemical partner to promote laboratory safety

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This summer, Penn State began a new partnership with the Dow Chemical Co. to improve laboratory safety at the University. A diverse team of faculty, safety officers and graduate students from the Departments of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering (MATSE), as well as the Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Office, are working with Dow to develop best practices that can be instituted across all laboratory research departments at Penn State. The goal is to improve the University’s safety culture to avoid the type of accident that killed a student in California four years ago.

In late 2008, Sheri Sangji was 23 years old and a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). On Dec. 29, she was alone in a chemistry lab, using a syringe to transfer t-butyl lithium, a dangerous compound that ignites spontaneously when exposed to the air. Somehow, the plunger popped out of the syringe, spraying the chemical onto her hands, synthetic sweater and an open flask of flammable solvent under the hood where she was working. A flash fire scorched 40 percent of her body. She died 18 days later.

A subsequent investigation of the entire lab revealed that “personal protective equipment was not fully utilized” and that Sheri had not been wearing “body protection.” Beyond the extensive clothing recommended, Sheri wasn’t even wearing the flame-resistant lab coat that could have saved her life. Her sister Naveen, now a surgical resident at Harvard, later said of her death, “Real people and families are profoundly affected. Safety has to be an absolute priority and the first priority for any laboratory.”

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the national group that typically investigates industry accidents, conducted a review of this incident and academic laboratory safety in general. This past January, it issued a scathing report on universities that included a sobering video. Andrew Zydney remembers the 2008 UCLA death, as well as the accidental poisoning of a Dartmouth professor in 1997 and a 2010 explosion at Texas Tech that left a graduate student without three of his fingers. Zydney is the department head of chemical engineering at Penn State, and he sent the CSB video to his faculty colleagues. “Those events opened everyone’s eyes,” Zydney says. “Nothing like that has happened here, and our safety record is excellent. But, until now, we haven’t been doing as much as we could or should be doing to maintain that record. It is imperative that we be proactive.”

Dow has a sterling international reputation for its safety programs and its philanthropy, and Penn State has had a strong relationship with Dow for decades. The former department head of chemical engineering, Larry Duda, came to the University from Dow, and the corporation made a $2 million gift in his honor shortly before he passed away in 2007. In 2011, Dow decided to significantly increase its support of higher education research in the three traditional departments of chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science and engineering. Dow committed to provide $250 million in research funding over the next ten years to 11 selected universities, including Penn State. Dow subsequently decided to partner with three of these 11 institutions (Penn State, the University of Minnesota, and University of California, Santa Barbara) to try to significantly enhance laboratory safety and to develop a culture that emphasizes the importance of safety overall.

Previously, in 2008, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering revamped its perspective on safety and eventually formed the MATSE Safety Awareness Organization (MSAO) to raise awareness. It also has active involvement and safety guidance from its external advisory board and Dow Corning. However, Department Head Gary Messing is happy about the increasing attention and assistance from Dow this year. “MatSE has heavily invested in safety already,” Messing says, “but the Dow initiative has helped us find ways to further implement safety practices in all of our graduate and undergraduate labs.”

In its first phase, the safety partnership with Dow focused specifically on research labs, and most of this lab work is conducted by graduate students (e.g., nearly 100 in chemical engineering and more than 250 graduate students and postdoctoral research assistants in chemistry). However, Chemistry Department Head Barbara Garrison points out that as the safety practices are integrated into undergraduate labs, the collaboration with Dow will ultimately affect thousands of students. “Chemistry alone teaches 5,500 undergraduates each year in lab courses,” she explains, “and Penn State has one of the largest undergraduate chemical engineering programs in the country.”

An initial pilot program began this summer, with bi-weekly meetings between representatives of Dow and an interdepartmental safety team at Penn State. The team also developed a survey instrument to perform a baseline assessment of safety culture and awareness at the University, and a small group of researchers and EHS representatives from Dow visited the three departments to tour the laboratories and talk with graduate students, staff and faculty.

In late July, a group of 23 students, faculty and staff from Penn State spent two days at Dow’s R&D headquarters in Midland, Mich., to learn about the company's laboratory safety practices and culture. Dow shared a range of best practices on chemical labeling, reactive hazards and personal protective equipment. The Penn State-Dow safety team is now working to implement many of these ideas to enhance the existing safety programs at Penn State.

The Department of Chemical Engineering and EHS are piloting a new color-coded chemical labeling system that makes it much easier to identify chemical hazards. The Chemistry Department is implementing the use of “standard operating cards” to better define safe procedures for running experiments and is also conducting a learning experience with near misses. Garrison is most excited about their new website with easy access to safety resources. “As it says right on the site, ‘Our goal is to provide you with easily accessible tools to make safety a component of everything you do in the laboratory (and life!).’”

Ultimately, Penn State wants to have its graduates recognized for having a state-of-the-art safety experience, which will put them at a competitive advantage when they pursue industrial positions after graduation. At companies like Dow, safety is a business imperative with enormous legal and financial ramifications. If anyone spots unsafe conditions, they are expected to report it immediately. Students well versed in this level of safety protocol are invaluable as future employees. Their labs are pristine. Sinks are not filled with glassware. Chemicals are not left on tables. Safety violations may result in terminations.

This type of commitment does not happen overnight. It is too easy for safety to be simply a checklist instead of a way of behaving, thinking and doing. The pilot program is just the beginning of a University-wide effort between faculty, students and operations to create a new, vigilant atmosphere. “Changing the culture of safety means embracing the collective aspect of it,” says Zydney. “As each new student or faculty member makes safety a part of their everyday behaviors, we all benefit. We are all safer.”

Last Updated October 12, 2012