Safety is flouted in chemistry culture

March 10, 2000

A culture of bravado in some university chemistry laboratories is leading to worrying breaches of health and safety procedures.

An apparent lack of concern among staff in a number of departments has been chronicled in a report commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The research, which was carried out by consultants Evaluation Associates, sought to investigate factors that contributed to the inability of the subject to retain female chemists.

In the process of investigating the greater importance women attached to health and safety, the researchers uncovered a catalogue of complaints and admissions of a lax attitude towards ensuring scientists were protected from the hazardous substances that many have to handle.

One female researcher, who had left academe for industry, said: "They're stuck in the 1950s. You've always got this worry that what you're using could be very bad for you in the future."

A male chemist, who has since moved to a government research establishment, confessed: "Chemists in general tend to be extremely lax about safety issues. I was. I still am."

University departments are required to meet the requirements of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSSH) regulations, part of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which determine standards for such things as the handling of radioactive materials and the upkeep of fume cupboards.

Regular inspections seek to ensure that the rules are complied with to protect chemists from the wide range of potential hazards they face, which include corrosive substances, carcinogens and toxins.

However, concern centres on the attitude of many individuals that, the new research anecdotally suggests, could lead to the cutting of corners when direct supervision is absent.

In the report, a London-based PhD student in her final year said: "Health and safety measures are not really followed or you don't really take them seriously."

One woman, who is now a teacher, added: "You had someone in my group working with cadmium who wasn't the tidiest of people, so we were on edge the entire time."

Some of the male chemists who discussed the issue with members of a focus group set up to carry out the research, regarded dealing with the COSSH requirements as an onerous bureaucratic exercise rather than an exercise in maintaining safety.

One said: "I used to do a COSSH assessment once a year, sign it, put it in my drawer, and forget all about it."

Another, who was now in industry, added: "Basically, we know when the people are coming to check."

Sean McWhinnie, science policy officer with the RSC and a former Brunel University chemist, said the regulations applied in higher education institutions should be matched by a better

attitude among some of the researchers.

"It's down to trying to engender a culture of health and safety in universities," he said.

As well as offering chemists more protection, this would also help encourage more women to remain within the academic field.

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