In Materials Science and Engineering, lab users focus on safety

For students, postdocs and other researchers in Penn State’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the message is clear: you can dance if you want to, but safety is mandatory. A video focused on lab safety and set to the 1980s pop tune “Safety Dance” took hold as a centerpiece of the department’s Safety Week programming this year. Since it began in 2009, Safety Week has become one of the University’s most successful laboratory safety training efforts.

The video, created by Multimedia Specialist Mike Fleck along with a group of the department’s students, stresses the basic tenants of laboratory safety, including the use of safety glasses and gloves, proper chemical disposal and storage, and appropriate footwear. Though it may sound simple, the video does just what its creators set out to do, reinforcing (in a deliberately catchy manner) Safety Week’s focus on lab safety.

Several years ago, concerns were raised by members of the department’s External Advisory Board, who said graduates entering industry jobs were underprepared for the transition to the rigorous safety standards expected in the industrial environments in which they were being asked to work. In response, the department founded the Materials Science Safety Awareness Organization (MSAO), a group of faculty, staff, students and researchers whose primary charge is to promote and reinforce a culture of safety within the department. The MSAO, in turn, began Safety Week: an annual, weeklong series of mandatory lab safety sessions held in partnership with the University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

“A number of years ago we started a program to promote safety consciousness, but in 2009, we got really serious about it,” said Gary Messing, who is head of the department and distinguished professor of ceramic science and engineering. “Safety Week has really been key in terms of raising student consciousness about safety.”

The University requires anyone who will be working in a lab to attain a basic level of safety certification, but in the Department of Material Science and Engineering, safety preparation has been taken up a notch. Students and researchers are required to attend face-to-face refresher training in lab safety. This year, they also received fire-extinguisher training, participated in a fire drill and received training from University Police. Training also was required for employees who don’t work directly in a lab but who do work in a research environment.

Since the program began, Messing said the change in lab safety behaviors among the department’s lab users has been marked. Safety, he said, has become a way of life. A key element in reinforcing that message has been the semi-annual review of the department’s safety practices and approaches by members of the External Advisory Board, who practice safety daily, he said.

“Five years ago, we might not have seen students wearing goggles and gloves as they worked in the lab. Today, we actually have students reminding each other when they’re not adhering to lab standards,” he said. “And when they graduate, our students really know what they’re talking about when they have conversations with potential employers about safety.”

Kate Lumley-Sapanski, assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety at Penn State, said the diverse makeup of the department’s safety team (the MSAO) has certainly contributed to its successful efforts to establish a culture of safety, not just during Safety Week but year-round.

“In some ways, the MSAO is unique to Penn State; with the variety of people on the team, it’s like having a bunch of safety champions throughout the department. They genuinely care about safety and take the challenges on, and that makes a huge difference,” she said.

While Safety Week is the group’s culminating event each year, Scott Henninger, research support technologist and leader of safety efforts within the department, said the MSAO is constantly at work. Frequent email reminders, posters in the hallways, the department’s website and safety tips on the walls of bathroom stalls are utilized to maintain a high profile for the team’s safety efforts.

“We are creating a culture of safety,” Henninger said. “When people enter our building and step into a lab to work, we want them to feel safe and secure.”

Michael Hickner, chair of the MSAO, has provided faculty leadership in creating a safe research environment.

"Our approach to safety addresses all aspects of research in Materials Science and Engineering, and is beginning to impact our collaborators and colleagues at Penn State and off campus,” said Hickner, who is the Virginia S. and Philip L. Walker Jr. Faculty Fellow, and assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “The safety program is tangible proof that safety is positioned front-and-center in all academic labs. The people moving these efforts along in the department and in Environmental Health and Safety are making a real difference."

“Safety Week is simply a reinforcement of what we’re doing every day,” said Messing. “It isn’t the beginning -- it actually is the confirmation of what we do all year. We are promoting safety as a normal way of life.”

Henninger said the collaboration with Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) has been instrumental to the success of Safety Week. Participants are happy with the convenience of having safety training sessions brought to them, and he said the ability to work with EHS to tailor programs to the department’s specific needs has been invaluable.

For more information about Safety Week contact Henninger at henninger@matse.psu.edu or visit http://www.matse.psu.edu/safety. To learn more about safety training services offered by EHS, contact Kevin Myers, hazardous materials program manager, at klm146@psu.edu or 814-865-6391. To watch the "Safety Dance" video, visit http://goo.gl/R7muX.

Last Updated November 15, 2011