At Dow, laboratory safety is always an essential ingredient of research and development. Safety is a mindset — a culture, even — that’s intrinsic in everything Dow does as a company and every decision its people make. For proof, look no further than Dow’s impressive safety metrics.
Realizing the potentially wide-reaching and positive impact of sharing its best practices in lab safety, Dow has begun a formal initiative to collaborate with academic research institutions and disseminate its information throughout the chemical industry. To this end, Dow recently launched the beta version of the Dow Lab Safety Academy, a digital learning environment that provides practical safety videos and resources in a convenient format.
Best Practices Rooted in Experience
Dow’s university lab safety initiative began in early 2012 on the heels of an eye-opening industry report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that highlighted the potential hazards associated with conducting research at chemical laboratories in academic institutions.
The chemical industry was abuzz over a string of high-profile laboratory accidents in academic research settings, including one incident that tragically ended in a student’s death.
Dow’s R&D leaders saw an opportunity to be part of a solution. They started working on a plan to share company’s safety practices on a larger stage, with the future workforce as its target audience. By disseminating its best-in-class practices to academia, Dow could heighten safety awareness in university labs and help students become better prepared for the rigorous safety practices that would await them after graduation, should they go to work for the chemical industry.
The timing for such an initiative was favorable, as Dow had just recently forged 10-year strategic partnerships with 11 of the country’s premier research universities for science and engineering. Principal investigators from Dow were already active in these university labs collaborating on research in a range of areas, from catalysis and new materials to consumer applications.
Dow gauged interest among these top universities and, in summer 2012, launched ambitious pilot programs at three of its partner schools: University of California-Santa Barbara, University of Minnesota and Penn State University.
Collaboration With Academia Is the Key
Through the lab safety pilot programs, Dow worked in concert with university labs to assess critical safety needs and create plans of action. Delegations of students, post-docs, safety officers and faculty from the universities’ departments of chemistry, chemical engineering and materials science also traveled to Dow’s R&D campus in Midland, Michigan, to attend two-day workshops on lab safety.
“It’s been really worthwhile in the sense that I’ve been exposed to what industry is like,” said Kaila Mattson, who participated in the program as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara.
While in Midland, Mattson and other delegates engaged directly with Dow’s R&D leaders and scientists — many of whom were graduates of the same partner universities — to hear personal stories of lab safety and the transition to industry. Students got a valuable first-hand look inside Dow’s R&D’s labs, where they saw how working scientists translate the best practices into daily action.
“The experience was incredibly helpful in motivating our students to see that the time and energy we spend on safety is a vital part of their professional development,” said Andrew Zydney, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Penn State University. “Students observed that it’s possible to do cutting-edge research while also maintaining the highest standards of safety; these two things don’t have to pull in opposite directions. The level of confidence that resulted among students would have been incredibly difficult for us to generate in-house.”
A Bright Future for Lab Safety
In May 2013, Dow further expanded its commitment to safety by launching the beta version of the Dow Lab Safety Academy, a website that makes Dow’s best practices available to a wide audience in a quick and accessible format.
The Dow Lab Safety Academy includes more than three-dozen videos addressing a variety of real-life scenarios, grouped under four comprehensive lab safety categories. The website also provides a collection of useful documents such as a chemical reactivity worksheet and an incident alert template, which help academic labs incorporate best practices for safety.
“The material presented on the Dow Lab Safety Academy website is highly relevant to academic researchers, with modules that focus on the types of safety issues we all encounter,” noted William Tolman, Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry at University of Minnesota.
In creating the Dow Lab Safety Academy, Dow’s initial objective was to further disseminate its best practices to universities that are unable to participate in a formal pilot program, as well as to provide additional resources to universities who are part of the program. But as the conversation evolved, so did the vision. Dow’s R&D leaders ultimately decided to open the website to anyone who’s interested — a move that Dow believes will benefit the broader chemical industry, including customers who operate industrial labs.
Alessandro Moretto, the chemical laboratory safety officer for UC Santa Barbara’s Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and College of Engineering, said Dow's content will help students stay up-to-date on best practices well after their introductory safety training has ended.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to generate employable scientists,” Moretto said. “The Dow Lab Safety Academy helps students achieve that. Industry wants scientists who are well trained and who understand that safety does not inhibit research. Analyzing the hazards and mitigating the risks are part of designing an experiment. Safety is part of the scientific method.”
Explore the Dow Lab Safety Academy at http://safety.dow.com.