The excitement of discovery, of boldly going where no one has gone before, is what attracted me to the sciences many years ago. Since then, decades of research in different settings has proven that adventure always comes with risk. Probing the limits of the known world will never be a 100% safe activity. For this reason, at the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI), we avoid using the term “safe science.” There is no such thing. “Safer science” is a more accurate term that focuses on managing risk to acceptable levels, not eliminating it altogether.

Understanding Safer Science
"Safer science" is guided by four critical questions that scientists and educators should consider before and during any experimental activity to foster a safety mindset:

  1. What hazards are associated with this experiment? Identifying potential dangers upfront aids in planning and preparation. For example, using reactive chemicals requires specific protocols to prevent accidents.
  2. What could go wrong? Anticipating problems allows for proactive measures to be put in place. Consider the consequences of equipment failure.
  3. How are we prepared to handle these issues? Ensuring that proper safety measures, emergency procedures, and contingency plans are available and understood by all involved is crucial.
  4. What protective measures are necessary to minimize risks? Implementing effective safety protocols to safeguard against identified hazards is essential. The three here are protective facilities, prudent practices and personal protective equipment.

In this article, we will apply these four questions to diverse scenarios from art conservation to lab waste disposal to demonstrate how these simple, yet profound questions can produce a shift in mindset, impacting a person’s personal and professional life, and laying the foundation for a comprehensive organizational safety culture.

Cultivating a Safety Mindset Through Critical Questioning
A safety mindset begins with the individual's ability to anticipate, recognize, and manage the inherent risks in any task. The four critical questions of "safer science" provide a structured approach that empowers individuals to systematically gather critical information to address potential dangers. This is crucial not only in traditional scientific labs but also in any field involving precise and potentially hazardous work, such as art conservation.

Example: Art Conservationist Preserving a Painting
Consider an art conservationist tasked with restoring a valuable historical painting. This scenario, while not a traditional laboratory setting, involves chemical applications and delicate operations that can benefit immensely from a safer science approach:

  1. What hazards are associated with this restoration?
    • The conservationist identifies the chemicals used in solvents and cleaning agents, which can be toxic or flammable, and the physical risks of working with fragile materials.
  2. What could go wrong during this restoration?
    • Potential risks include chemical spills that might damage the artwork further or harm the conservationist, and physical damage to the painting from improper handling or tool use.
  3. How are we prepared to handle these issues?
    • Preparation involves having the appropriate chemical spill kits on hand, proper training in handling artworks, and ensuring all tools and equipment are suitable and in good condition.
  4. What protective measures are necessary to minimize risks?
    • The conservationist uses gloves, eye protection, and masks to handle volatile organic compounds safely, sets up a well-ventilated workspace to avoid inhaling fumes, and employs precise instruments designed to minimize physical contact with the painting.

By answering these questions, conservationists ensure the physical safety of the artwork, themselves, and adopt a mindset that prioritizes thorough risk assessment and proactive risk management. This approach is essential for anyone responsible for the care and preservation of valuable items, where the cost of negligence can lead to irreparable damage to cultural artifacts.

From Individual Actions to Collective Safety
Individual decisions in a scientific context can have profound impacts on collective safety, especially in educational settings where the audience is impressionable and the stakes are high. The application of the four critical questions of "safer science" becomes crucial in such scenarios, not only to protect the individuals involved but also to foster a culture of safety among young learners.

Example: 7th Grade Science Teacher Planning a Lab Demonstration
Imagine a 7th-grade science teacher who wants to perform the "Whoosh Bottle" experiment, a popular demonstration that visually impresses the principles and power of combustion. However, this experiment has been known to go awry, leading to injuries when not executed with strict safety measures. Here’s how the four questions would help guide the teacher:

  1. What hazards are associated with this experiment?
    • The teacher identifies the highly flammable nature of the alcohol used and the potential for an explosive reaction that could project flames and hot liquid.
  2. What could go wrong during this demonstration?
    • Risks include accidental ignition leading to uncontrolled fire, injury from burns to the teacher or students, and potential fire damage to classroom property. Additionally, the container for the whoosh bottle experiment could explode, sending shrapnel across the room if the bottle cannot withstand the force generated in the experiment. Flame jetting can also be an issue.
  3. How are we prepared to handle these issues?
    • The teacher evaluates the available safety equipment (fire extinguisher, safety shields, proper lab attire), the setup of the classroom (adequate ventilation, escape routes, distance of students), and their own familiarity with the chemical properties at play. For experiments that have known risks, it’s important to practice responding to them.
  4. What protective measures are necessary to minimize risks?
    • Protective measures could include using smaller quantities of alcohol, ensuring all safety gear is worn, and conducting the experiment in a controlled environment away from students. Use a fume hood if available.

Importance of Finding Safer Alternatives
If, after assessing these factors, the risks are deemed too high or the preparation insufficient—especially in answering question #3 regarding readiness to handle potential issues—safer alternatives need to be considered. This could involve choosing a different experiment with lower risks or using simulations and videos to demonstrate the principles of combustion safely.

By applying the "safer science" approach, schools can ensure the safety of the demonstration while imparting a valuable lesson to students: science is exciting, but it must always be approached with knowledge (not assumptions), caution, and respect. This demonstration of safety awareness and risk assessment can profoundly influence students’ perceptions and behaviors in future scientific activities.

Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability through Safer Science
As "safer science" principles permeate the fabric of an organization or community, they not only enhance individual and collective safety but also reinforce commitments to environmental stewardship. Proper waste disposal, especially in settings like chemical laboratories, becomes a crucial area where these principles can significantly influence sustainability and environmental protection.

Example: Waste Disposal in a Chemical Research Facility
Consider a chemical research facility that regularly generates hazardous waste from various experiments. The application of "safer science" principles can transform waste management processes to minimize environmental impact:

  1. What hazards are associated with this waste?
    • The facility identifies hazards such as toxicity, reactivity, and the potential for environmental contamination associated with improper disposal of chemical waste.
  2. What could go wrong with current disposal methods?
    • Risks include leakage of chemicals into local waterways, toxic reactions in landfills, and exposure risks to sanitation workers and the environment.
  3. How are we prepared to handle these waste disposal issues?
    • Assess whether current methods adhere to legal and ethical standards, whether staff are properly trained in waste handling, and if the facility has the right technology and equipment to treat and dispose of waste safely. Having a clear understanding of the federal, state, and local regulations is essential.
  4. What protective measures are necessary to minimize risks?
    • Implement measures such as upgrading containment systems, ensuring thorough treatment of waste to neutralize hazards, and possibly adopting greener alternatives that reduce the generation of hazardous waste.

Real-World Inspiration: Minamata Disease
A poignant real-world example that underscores the need for rigorous safety and environmental protocols is the Minamata disease incident in Japan. Industrial mercury was discharged into Minamata Bay causing severe mercury poisoning in the local population and wildlife. This disaster highlights the catastrophic consequences of inadequate chemical waste management and the critical importance of adopting stringent safety measures to protect both human and environmental health.

By applying "safer science" principles to waste management, the chemical research facility not only safeguards its personnel and complies with regulatory demands but also plays a pivotal role in protecting the local and global environment. This approach promotes sustainability by preventing pollution, conserving resources, and fostering a culture of responsibility towards the earth's ecological systems.

Cultivating a Safety Culture Through Personal Storytelling
As the principles of "safer science" influence individual actions and attitudes, they naturally begin to reshape organizational and community cultures. The cultivation of a safety culture extends beyond merely adopting safety practices; it involves transforming the collective consciousness by guiding how the community and organizations within it perceive and engage with safety daily. Storytelling, particularly personal storytelling, plays a crucial role in this transformation. I will develop this aspect in greater detail in a future post.