November 21, 2012 by Paul Whitehead

Health and safety in school and university laboratories pose some interesting issues, not least of which is the itinerant nature of the main residents, i.e. the students. Having said that, the key principles of identifying the relevant hazards and assessing/managing the risks, are similar to other industrial laboratories and, in principle, in most workplaces. The Health and Safety at Work Act from 1974 is embedded in workplace culture, to the extent that many people feel that health and safety is only there to prevent them doing their real job. This is nonsense of course, as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are always keen to point out; safety legislation is there for a purpose – essentially so that people can go home at night with the same number of limbs that they arrived with in the morning. The perception that health and safety is a barrier is mainly down to erroneous interpretations of the legal requirements and occasionally over-zealous implementation. This has lead to a reduction in school laboratory experiments for example, where many teachers and local authorities believe that the hazards associated with chemicals preclude children from coming anywhere near them.

Universities also have another issue, particularly relating to control over supply and use of chemicals. By definition, universities are research-focused and therefore their chemical inventory is often wider and more disperse than other laboratories. Without close control over purchasing and inventory control, it is possible for individuals to accumulate greater quantities of certain chemicals than is good for them, or others around them. There have been examples of this recently, where unfortunate consequences have resulted from lack of control.

Also of interest is how far the liability can extend within an organisation for health and safety failures. The concept of the ‘Controlling Mind’ is a key example of this; this covers the most senior level of management in an organisation, and is not just a manager in a specific area (e.g. laboratory, or other workplace environment). The members of the Board of Directors have both collective and individual responsibility for health and safety and need to demonstrate strong and effective leadership in this area. The awareness of this concept, together with the realisation that not all university laboratories are created equal has identified a need for sharing best practice within this community. The UK Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has stepped up and is developing an interactive online resource for the harmonisation of university laboratory health and safety. This is being prepared with the full cooperation of the University Chemical Safety Forum and will be live during 2013. Overseas interest has also been expressed in this concept, and the RSC will also be holding discussions in India as the first step.

This work is being conducted by the Environment, Health and Safety Committee of the RSC, for which I am the Chairman. This committee has also produced a series of Guidance Notes on other aspects of laboratory health and safety, including lone working, the safety of laboratory workers with disabilities, pregnant workers – chemicals and the law, health and safety of young persons in the laboratory, and reproductive hazards of chemicals. These Notes, and others of relevant interest, can be downloaded from the RSC website, and entering EHSC guidance into the search box.