Academic research safety has received
renewed attention since several major accidents occurred in academic
laboratories in the 2000s.
Accidents reported in
academic laboratories, such as the flash fire at UCLA in 2008, have
prompted not only the formation of institutional safety organizations
including the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, but also national meetings
that focus on fostering a stronger sense of safety in academia.
This refreshed emphasis on safe-work practices has made safety an
essential component of the holistic education for modern scientists.
The conventional tactic of enforcing safety
at academic institutions involves a top-down approach of instituting
administrative measures, which can range from mandatory onboarding
safety trainings to annual safety inspections. However, such an approach
has met mixed levels of success. In response to the call for change
in research safety culture, a complementary bottom-up approach was
introduced through safety teams.
new approach quickly developed, and analogous activities started sprouting
throughout the United States. In 2012, the first student-led Joint
Safety Team (JST) was launched from a partnership between the University
of Minnesota (UMN) and Dow.
on the successful partnership with UMN, Dow invited graduate students
from two additional institutions, Northwestern University and the
University of Chicago, to participate in the second Dow Lab Safety
Academy in October 2017. The high safety standard at Dow and the impactful
outcome that the JST brought to UMN planted a seed among the Northwestern
group to form a similar student safety team.
the Research Safety Office consists of Environmental Health and Safety
(EHS) specialists who work to ensure the safety of all research personnel.
Because of the invisible yet unbridgeable barrier between university
administration and the research community, the Research Safety Office
faces similar challenges to other institutions with top-down approaches.
Obstacles, such as a reluctance to cooperate from researchers, severely
hinder the implementation of safety policies.
In efforts to
advance the research community at Northwestern toward a more mature
safety culture, we launched Research Safety Student Initiative (RSSI)
at the end of October 2017, shortly after returning from the Dow Lab
Safety Academy. The mission of RSSI is “to develop and promote a stronger culture
of safety across research laboratories
at Northwestern University through an increased awareness
of safety hazards and a more positive mindset towards
safe laboratory practices. In conjunction with Research
Safety, we aim to encourage University-wide commitment to
safety by providing education, resources, and training.”
Several key factors integral to the initial success and continual
evolution of a new student-led safety team include student leadership,
researcher participation, administrative support, support from external
companies, and interactions with other student safety teams (Figure 1
). Here, we share
the essential elements for forming a successful student-led safety
team and the strategies employed in developing RSSI initiatives, as
we believe that our experiences can be readily translated to other
institutions to raise safety awareness through similar student-led
Summary of the support network required for starting and maintaining
As a student initiative, a strong
student leadership ties the entire organization together. Students
who possess a passion to build a safer research community are encouraged
to volunteer as board members to lead and develop the blueprint of
research safety strategies that can be implemented university wide.
RSSI board members are presented with a significant opportunity for
leadership development. Tasks can include securing funding, brainstorming
ideas for activities, and developing technical content.
to make inroads into various technical disciplines across the research
community, we elected an additional team of departmental liaisons
to ensure RSSI had a variety of technical expertise and could appropriately
assist the interdisciplinary research community at Northwestern. Liaisons
to four departments were recruited in addition to the core leadership
(a president, a vice president, an education officer, an outreach
officer, a public relations officer, and a Research Safety liaison).
As a result, we have been particularly successful in encouraging participation
and recruiting volunteers from our broad target audience.
share our proposed mission prior to launching, the leadership team
met with university administration ranging from the Office for Research
at Northwestern, the Research Safety Office, several science and engineering
departments, and core research facilities. This early administrative
support was pivotal in promoting the organization and facilitating
our activities. For example, the Vice President for Research, Jay
Walsh, who spoke at our inaugural Safety Awareness Week, emphasized
that research safety is a top priority at Northwestern. Department
chairs have also spoken publicly and internally to express their commitment
in assisting RSSI to improve workplace safety.
To support the
organization financially, over $11,000 in initial funding was secured
from a combination of internal organizations (The Graduate School,
the Research Safety Office, and the Department of Chemistry) and various
external companies. These sponsorships have further provided students
with rare opportunities of learning new technologies and networking
with technical staff. Support from both internal and external agencies
were critical in facilitating the implementation of all RSSI activities.
For example, funding enabled advertising of activities, catering during
events, and initiating prizes.
Similar student-led grassroots
organizations are emerging at academic institutions across the United
States. However, apart from JST at UMN, most other groups are still
in their infancy, experimenting with different approaches to achieve
the same goal. Discussions with such groups can help minimize reinventing
the wheel and allow better translation of knowledge and experiences.
Additionally, conversations among the groups have catalyzed ideas
of creating a platform for student efforts to collectively and effectively
share their experiences with the global research community.
In fulfilling our team’s mission, we have adopted the following
three strategies: dissemination of information and resources, active
participation from students, and feedback-driven initiatives. These
approaches have helped energize enthusiasm toward safer laboratory
practices at Northwestern, using examples of past and ongoing RSSI
activities (Table 1
Summary of RSSI Initiatives
Safety minute library
Safety Awareness Week
Laboratory safety walk-through
Distribution of safety equipment
Summer ice cream social
Safety training for first-year
graduate students during orientation
Safety designate information panel
of Information and Resources
We discovered early on that
the lack of safety awareness among researchers can be largely attributed
to the difficulty in finding relevant information. Despite previous
efforts carried out by the Research Safety office, including quarterly
meetings for safety designates from each lab, the majority of the
research community still finds it frustrating and time-consuming to
acquire safety information. Often, a web search brings conflicting
reports as to the best practices for handling a particular chemical
or process. To address these concerns, we worked toward making the
technical safety information more readily accessible, and available
in a variety of formats with a consistent standard.
based on gathered input has been a key element in RSSI activities.
For example, safety fliers were distributed during three summer social
events in 2018, where an average of ∼100 researchers participated
in each monthly social. Furthermore, we maintain an active website
(https://northwesternrssi.wixsite.com/rssi) with resources ranging from safety minute
slides, archives of previously
distributed materials, upcoming events, and links to useful websites.
To further minimize barriers to safer conduct in research laboratories,
we distribute safety equipment free of charge. To date, we have distributed
160 secondary containers for NMR tubes, 65 dispensers for safety glasses,
gloves ON/OFF stickers for research instrument use, and portable fire
extinguishers for home use. We publicize distribution of safety equipment
via our website, email list, as well as concurrent RSSI events. For
instance, we provided sign-up sheets for safety glasses dispensers
at our socials to boost their visibility. These efforts have helped
minimize barriers to safer conduct in research laboratories.
Participation from Researchers
As a student-led organization,
we fully leverage our influence among peers. To effectively promote
a more positive mindset toward safe laboratory practices, we recruit
volunteers and provide incentives to maximize engagement from researchers.
By providing researchers with opportunities to get involved and actively
promote safety, we encourage the community to shift toward a more
self-sustainable safety culture.
RSSI volunteers are recruited
from various research backgrounds to act as anchors within their own
research communities. Their volunteering efforts not only increase
their own awareness of safety but also make them safety ambassadors
who actively promote safety education among their peers.
“safety minute”, which is a 1 min presentation on a
safety-related topic, is an excellent example of successful peer influence.
Currently, three departments (Chemistry, Chemical and Biological Engineering,
and Materials Science and Engineering) have adopted this practice
for their weekly colloquia. We discovered that attendees pay greater
attention to the safety message when the presenter is an acquaintance
or a friend, indicating that peers can have a greater long-term impact
on improving the culture than EHS staff or administration. To date,
the RSSI safety minute library consists of 77 topics arranged in 8
The laboratory safety walk-through offers
a platform for volunteers to learn about safety from the perspective
of an EHS specialist. We believe that learning by doing is key in
instilling a positive safety mindset. Assuming the role of an inspector,
volunteers identify potential safety hazards in other research laboratories
and evaluate the effectiveness of their peers in conducting science
safely. In 2018, the highest scoring research laboratories were awarded
small monetary prizes to recognize their effort in upholding high
safety standards. An additional possible benefit is that discussion
of research projects during an inspection may lead to fruitful collaborations.
In 2018, 27 volunteers (graduate students and postdoctoral scholars)
inspected 17 research laboratories (out of 34 invited) from Chemistry
and Chemical and Biological Engineering.
We also host an annual
Safety Awareness Week (Figure 2
), through which we promote safety awareness with talks, discussion
panels, workshops, and booths. The 2018 kickoff event was attended
by ∼100 researchers, followed by a catered reception to allow
attendees to network with potential employers. Teams of volunteers
are assigned shifts to present at the booth, increasing participation
through engagement with peers, with the added draw of snacks and free
gift totes, mugs, and buttons. On average, we received a daily of
∼160 researchers at the booth in 2019. By incorporating different
types of incentives, we can overcome the initial barrier for participation
and effectively engage researchers.
Participation by departments at the 2019 Safety Awareness Week. Engineering
includes Material Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering,
and Chemical and Biological Engineering; Biosciences includes Interdisciplinary
Biological Sciences, Neurobiology, and Molecular Biosciences; Others
include Northwestern staff and industry representatives.
Since RSSI was founded, the program has constantly readjusted,
reorganized, and restructured. When researchers voice their concerns,
needs, and comments, it is important to redesign or modify initiatives
to address their feedback. We rely heavily on the input from our departmental
liaisons both before and after activities. For example, we have found
that due to the differences in departmental culture, some departments
prefer to have safety minutes presented by a volunteer from the hosting
faculty’s research group, while others use a volunteer sign-up
At Northwestern, the feedback-driven model led us to promote
the distribution of secondary containers for NMR tubes free of charge
which was motivated by several incidental spills. This presented the
opportunity to mitigate safety risks associated with transporting
NMR samples by hand, such as broken glass and small chemical spills.
To provide easy access, RSSI collaborated with the core NMR facility
and set up free pickup locations near the instruments. Additionally,
as the use of the safety minute library grew, RSSI received requests
to include topics for engineers and teaching laboratories. The expansion
of the RSSI safety minute library is an area of active and continuous
Having witnessed the initial shift toward a more positive
mindset among Northwestern researchers since the launch of RSSI, we
believe that a student-led effort can bring long-lasting impact to
any campus research community. Undoubtedly, new challenges will surface
as the research community grows. However, such changes also present
new opportunities and alternative avenues in which we can shape the
safety culture at our home institutions. With the framework we have
mapped out here, we envision an acceleration of the formation of analogous
student-led initiatives worldwide. Moreover, we hope our insights
can assist student leaders and EHS specialists during the inception
and early development of similar safety teams at academic institutions.