A laboratory, the camera looking down from above. A long beam bisects the center of the photograph, with a lab bench on either side. On the right is Angus Wu, an asian student in a lab coat, face covering, and gloves. On the left is Andrew Pendergrast, a white man wearing a blue lab coat, face covering and gloves.

Catalyst for safety

In June 2019, a chemical spill in a Department of Chemistry laboratory led to a full department shutdown until a comprehensive safety assessment could be completed. Within days, most laboratories re-opened. Within weeks, the department had put into motion an unprecedented safety makeover in partnership with the Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and the College of Science. Since then, the college and EHS have enacted creative solutions to rebuild a culture of lab safety from the ground up—and it has paid dividends in implementing safeguards related to COVID-19.

“Everyone from the department level up to the President’s Office has made significant changes to how the U regulates laboratory safety,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “By the time COVID-19 hit, we had the right infrastructure, the right coordination between EHS and our own folks, so that we could quickly lead out in the COVID era.”

Committed committees

Headshot of Matthew Sigman, a white man with a streak of gray in his brown hair

Matthew Sigman, the Peter J. Christine S. Stang Presidential Endowed Chair of Chemistry.

At the time of the spill, the U’s laboratory safety culture had been through a series of internal and external audits, including one by the Utah State Legislature. The reports identified crucial gaps in safety and made recommendations for improvement. The U has made significant progress addressing these recommendations, including establishing and expanding the number and authority of college and departmental-level safety committees. Within the College of Science, the Departments of Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics & Astronomy and the School of Biological Sciences all have committees made up of staff and faculty who performed routine lab inspections and reported violations. The previous safety system’s structure allowed some violations to remain unresolved. Now, the committees are empowered to recommend how violations get addressed. They’ve also expanded their scope to include postdocs and graduate students who can make suggestions for outdated practices or areas that need attention. In the coming weeks, safety committees will be required in all University colleges.

“To change the safety culture, there has to be the motivation, and it has to be a grassroots effort,” said Matthew Sigman, Peter J. Christine S. Stang Presidential Endowed Chair of Chemistry. “This is a success because it’s collaborative, it’s conversational, and it’s pragmatic. It’s about building relationships and getting buy-in from the top down.”

A headshot of Sarah Morris Benavides, a woman with short, brown hair in a pixie cut.

PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Crawley/University of Utah College of Science

Sarah Morris Benavides, associate director of safety in the College of Science.

In January, EHS and the College of Science jointly hired Sarah Morris-Benavides as the first associate director of safety for the College. Morris-Benavides facilitates communication between researchers, and helps translate regulatory protocols between the college and EHS. She also heads the College of Science’s safety committee that is made up of the department committee chairs. She and the committees have worked closely to ensure that classes and research are conducted safely in light of the coronavirus restrictions.

“I can’t tell you how valuable they’ve been,” said Morris-Benavides of the response to COVID-19. “We had a great benefit that these committees were already established and in place.”

Every month, the college safety committee meets to discuss each department’s safety protocols. “We have the ability to say, ‘Well, here’s something that they’re doing in biology. Does that make sense for physics?” she said. “Chemistry learned a lot from their amazing safety turnaround, and they’ve shared their best practices. It all benefits every department.”

Precipitating solutions

The U overhauled the previous laboratory safety system by restructuring EHS directly under the Vice President for Research Office, and Frederick Monette became its new director. This helped rebuild trust between the EHS and researchers, who had historically been at odds.

“Fred Monette was all in right away. His willingness to sit down with people, listen to their concerns, and back it up financially meant a lot to the people in the department,” said Holly Sebahar, professor of chemistry who was the chair of the chemistry safety committee at the time of the shutdown.

Angus Wu stands at the left of the photo, an asian student with a pony tail, wearing a white lab coat and a face covering for COVID-19 safety. Tommy Primo, right, sits at a chemical hood doing research. He's a Black man who is also wearing a white lab coat and a blue face covering and yellow gloves.

PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Crawley/University of Utah College of Science

Angus Wu (left), a biology major, and Tommy Primo (right), a triple biology, physics and mathematics major, do research in Shelley Minteer’s lab, adhering to COVID-19 safety measures. Despite the angle of the lens, the students are 6 feet apart.

Safety violations can be complicated; some are easy fixes, such as ensuring lab members wear proper PPE, but other issues are expensive, such as electrical or ventilation upgrades within older buildings. Traditionally, the burden of arranging infrastructure upgrades and their cost often fell solely on the principal investigator (PI) of the laboratory in question.

To change that, EHS and the College of Science lobbied for an infrastructure improvement project to fund overdue, expensive safety upgrades in College of Science buildings, many of which were identified as deficiencies during the chemistry shutdown. The resulting $1 million capital improvement project will address electrical upgrades, seismic bracing, and ventilation improvements in several buildings, beginning in January 2021. Addressing these deficiencies in one comprehensive project will be much quicker, more economical, and result in less disruption to laboratory operations compared with the past approach of fixing each issues one by one at the request of individual laboratories.

Working with the College of Science, the VPR Office facilitated the purchase of 20 new refrigerator/freezers rated for storage of flammable chemicals to replace units that failed to meet regulatory requirements, sharing the cost 50/50 with the PIs. These initiatives demonstrated the administration’s commitment to promoting a culture of safety across the university.

From the ground up

As another example of a changed safety culture, the Department of Chemistry aims to incorporate safety in all aspects of academic life. Every speaker, seminar and many group meetings now incorporate a ‘safety moment,’ with each presenter asked to share an example of a safety incident and how they addressed it.

“We have upwards of 30 or 40 external visitors a year. That’s a lot of safety moments. They’ll walk through that experience, then walk through the lab procedures to fix the problem,” Sigman said. “It’s a lessons learned, but also it’s an open conversation. We want to have the lowest risk, but we know when you sign up to be a chemist, you have the danger. Even when you cross the t’s, dot the i’s, something can happen.”

A head shot of Shelly Minteer, a white woman with blond shoulder-length hair and wire-rimmed glasses.

Shelly Minteer, Shelley Minteer, associate chair for faculty for the Department of Chemistry.

The collaborations go beyond the science—last year, EHS, the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences co-hosted a two-day lab safety symposium with speakers and training sessions that addressed all types of issues, from chemical storage to creating effective safety committees. More than 400 staff, students and faculty attended the mandatory event to emphasize that every individual is responsible to making their environment safe. The U is applying that same philosophy for COVID-19.

“As we started going through the safety culture changes, we realized that it’s not that students or post docs or faculty won’t follow safety protocols, they will, if they know where they are, if they can find the paperwork,” said Shelley Minteer, associate chair for faculty for the Department of Chemistry and COVID-19 coordinator for the department. “We learned a lot from the safety ramp up. We need clear guidelines and good communication. We’ve been applying those same principles to COVID.”

Media Contacts

Lisa Potterresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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