This April, labs in the Department of Chemistry and the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) are invited to join a competition to be the Safest Lab of 2019. The premise? The Joint Research Safety Initiative (JRSI), a student and postdoc-run group, will train volunteers to walk through participating labs “looking both for safety mishaps and clever ingenuity.” The winning labs earn not only the title but also a grand prize of $500 or two runner-up prizes of $250 to be used for a lab outing.
The Peer Walkthrough Competition is part JRSI’s mission to shift the culture and conversation around safety at the University of Chicago.
"These walkthroughs are not intended to be punitive," said Ryan Menssen, President of JRSI and chemistry graduate student. "It's about idea sharing and facilitating a conversation—the volunteers and labs can learn from each other and help each other improve."
JRSI modeled the competition and many of its other programs after those run by the University of Minnesota’s Joint Safety Team. In the fall of 2017, the founding members of JRSI joined students from Northwestern and University of Minnesota to learn more about creating a safety culture from Dow Chemical.
"We learned a lot from them. [People at Dow are] very clear and open with communication to lab mates," said Menssen. "Anyone can stop work at any point if they see something that makes them feel uncomfortable."
"We realized there's a huge safety training gap between what's expected in a research lab in grad school and in an industry workplace," added Ben Slaw, JRSI’s Primary Education Officer and chemistry graduate student.
JRSI officially launched the following spring. To celebrate their launch, they hosted a number of safety-related speakers and organized a vendor fair so that researchers could learn more about safety solutions and products.
In its first year, JRSI has focused on improving the culture in labs. They've introduced Safety Moments, five-minute safety reminders that labs can use to kickstart their meetings. The group intends to curate a library of these Safety Moments on their website so labs can easily access them when preparing for meetings.
JRSI has also designed a training for first-year graduate students and is in the process of creating a training for Lab Safety Contacts—the students who are the primary point of contact for safety-related topics in the lab. This training will more clearly define the role and expectations for that position.
Slaw adapted the framework they learned at Dow for the trainings, encouraging students to “make S.P.A.C.E. for safety.” S.P.A.C.E. stands for “speak up, make it personal, ask open-ended questions, create a space where questioning is encouraged, and escalate.”
"We also adapted interpersonal relations materials because a lot of shifting the culture is learning how to speak up—often to people who are more senior—in a non-confrontational way," said Slaw.
JRSI wants to emphasize that safety is everyone's responsibility—from first-year graduate students up to the principal investigator—and to reframe the conversations around safety into something more positive. Recently, they held a mercury thermometer exchange and hung several safety posters.
"There are regulatory bodies that have a legal responsibility to inspect labs for violations," said Menssen, "But we want to see if there's another way to improve safety."
JRSI hopes that the peer walkthrough competition will amp up the fun. "At Minnesota, the professors and students have become very competitive," said Menssen. "It's not just about the money, but also about the title of safest lab."