Berkeley Lab

Keeping Students Safe

Arun Persaud and Grace Woods in lab

Then-undergraduate Grace Woods (l.) working with ATAP researcher and Berkeley Lab Outstanding Mentor Award winner Arun Persaud

ATAP’s mission to educate the next generation of scientists has been one of our great success stories. It carries a responsibility to both keep them safe and instill the values of a safety culture that they can pass on to their own labs and students. Workshop results and expert advice have been distilled into these principles and best practices:

•  Engagement is key. There is no substitute for personal face-to-face interaction in a mentoring relationship with students. The more time is spent with students providing guidance and answering questions, the more the student will understand and apply prudent safety behaviors.

•  As a mentor and within peer groups, it is crucial to establish a culture of openness. That is, questions (no matter how seemingly insignificant or obvious) are encouraged and received in a welcoming manner. This approach is one that promotes not only knowledge transfer and understanding, but is consistent with the learning environment that academic settings promote.

•  Safety must be integrated into all aspects of the work and research to be truly effective. Experimental procedures and standard protocols should contain safety information that provides worker and environmental protection, in addition to proper execution of the operation or use of a particular piece of equipment. Safety must be seen and valued as an important part of work planning and therefore achieving the desired scientific outcomes.

Best Practices for Student Safety

The following best practices (equally important; not presented in any particular order) were identified as having a beneficial effect on the safety performance of students.

•  Be present with student and focus on on-the-job training (OJT) until the student can demonstrate competence to work independently. Focus on less risky work initially.

•  Utilize easy to access tools (such as Google Drive) to store and share written procedures as well to encourage collaboration.

•  Reinforce the concept that all questions have value and ensure constructive feedback for learning. One particularly effective way to do this as a mentor is to lead by example: admit unfamiliarity with a subject and demonstrate to all group members how to find the relevant information.

•  Introduce a safety topic as a regular feature of group safety meetings. Occasionally emphasize a non-work safety topic to drive home the overall importance of 24/7/365 safe behavior.

•  Use workplace walkthroughs as an opportunity to engage in safety conversations on a smaller scale – demonstrate that safety is a part of successful science planning and execution.

•  Reinforce the concept of personal responsibility (“It’s Your Lab”) and the importance and encourage actions such as lab clean-ups on a periodic basis.

•  Employ teaching aids (such as safety checklists) to enhance communication and understanding — especially useful for areas with a high turnover of individuals.

•  Develop references that specify trigger points and provide guidance for hazard evaluation when experimental conditions change.

•  Pair up a student with a colleague to provide consultation on a particular piece of equipment or procedure — this works well in larger research groups.

•  Bring in EHS specialists to inform on certain safety aspects or subjects, and develop a relationship so they are seen as a resource in safely carrying out operations.

•  Lead by example; always seek to learn and improve safety, and remember that not only everything you say but everything you do is an example—one that looms proportionately large in their experience.

When we take on students, we’re building the scientists of tomorrow and sending them forth into the world. Let’s build-in awareness of safety and health protection and environmental stewardship as an essential part, from start to finish, of everything we do.