Recognizing it is typical in the world of chemistry-lab safety to point out what people are doing wrong, employees in Environmental Health & Safety set out to create a program to highlight what’s going right. Their Safest Teaching Assistant Awards program launched in 2017 and has sparked the interest of other universities as an example program. In summer 2020 the program was nationally recognized by a leading safety organization.
The Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association awarded the University of Nevada, Reno program first place in the category of Innovation-Safety Culture. The award was announced at CSHEMA’s 2020 conference, held online for this year.
The EH&S program selects and recognizes teaching assistants responsible for managing safety in the general chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry and introductory organic chemistry labs within the College of Science. Nearly 30 awards have been presented to teaching assistants since the program started.
When the EH&S representatives show up to present a congratulatory certificate, they also provide all of the students in the lab a “safety rocks” pin. EH&S Training Manager Brock A. Young notes the teaching assistants set the tone and teach safety practices, but the students make safety happen through their actions.
The acknowledgment of students recognizes the connection of laboratory safety to the overall culture of campus safety and to workforce development. As University President Marc Johnson said, “When you teach safety as an everyday practice, our graduates spread this culture where ever they go.”
Young joined with Chet Carpenter, senior laboratory safety specialist, and Kristin Eliasen, laboratory safety specialist, to create and administer the Safest Teaching Assistant Awards. They conduct routine lab safety assessments, with attention placed on the use of personal protective equipment, work practices and housekeeping practices. Through these assessments, and the resulting Safety Issue Score, three to five teaching assistants are identified as honorees each semester.
While catching safety violations remains important, Young and his colleagues emphasize that positive, supportive promotion of safety ultimately contributes to an environment where faculty, staff and students not only follow safety practices, but also support their colleagues in doing so.
“This recognition by CSHEMA is great, and I’m very proud of what the EH&S team has achieved,” said Mridul Gautam, vice president for research and innovation. “But what truly stands out is this University’s commitment to a culture of safety, in all of our work, learning, research and living settings. It’s about caring for and respecting one another and the community we serve.”
Of CSHEMA, Young said, “It’s a valuable organization to us, and is helping us share ideas.” CSHEMA presented its 2017 Innovation Award of Honor to the Safety Training for Academic Research Lab (STAR Lab) developed by EH&S.
Young, Carpenter and Eliasen are among the EH&S employees who have responded to on-campus needs throughout the ramp-down or closure of University operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.