Home 9 Uncategorized 9 v29 #5 Collecting to the Core — Chemical Safety in the Academic Lab

v29 #5 Collecting to the Core — Chemical Safety in the Academic Lab

by | Dec 11, 2017 | 0 comments

by Jeremy R. Garritano  (Research Librarian for Sciences/Engineering, Brown Science and Engineering Library, University of Virginia; Chemistry Subject Editor, Resources for College Libraries)

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL)

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD


Over the last decade, there has been increased scrutiny focused on improving chemical safety in academic laboratories.  A number of incidents, ranging from minor injuries to fatalities, has caused various groups to call for increased investments in safety culture and new methods for chemical safety education.  For those unfamiliar with the issue, an editorial in ACS Central Science provides useful background on some of the recent incidents and proposed solutions.1  Academic librarians, especially those serving the sciences, should be aware of the most current publications and reports particularly because of rapid changes across policy, regulations, and philosophical approaches to safety education.  Additionally, because of the increasing availability of open data and information on the Internet, many of the reports and publications acknowledge the importance of using appropriate information resources.  While it may be assumed that, through coursework, students are provided the necessary safety information to carry out lab experiments, making these resources available through the library broadens their access, enhances a safety culture throughout the institution, and provides individuals (such as independent study students, student entrepreneurs, and novice researchers) with the latest industry reports, best practices, guidance, and data.

Many of the resources described here are freely available online, but librarians may opt to purchase print copies to keep in labs or for ready reference when access to electronic devices or the Internet is not available.  This column includes a selection of resources regarding chemical safety in academic labs, therefore it does not cover industrial or process safety as is more common in engineering professions, nor does it cover related areas such as biohazards and safety related to equipment or instrumentation, such as lasers.  Additionally, the resources described below do not provide extensive coverage of environmental or occupational health and safety, including topics related to industrial hygiene, toxicology, and related legal aspects.  Other resources are available that cover those areas.  

Reports and Outcomes

In 2010, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) deemed an explosion in a chemistry lab at Texas Tech University serious enough to warrant an investigation.  While this sounds like a typical event for the CSB to investigate, the CSB is an independent federal agency tasked with investigating chemical accidents in industry and the Texas Tech incident was the first investigation at an academic institution since the CSB’s formation in 1998.  After this inquiry, one recommendation asked the American Chemical Society (ACS) to “develop good practice guidance that identifies and describes methodologies to assess and control hazards that can be used successfully in a research laboratory.”2  This resulted in two key documents released by the ACS.  In 2012, the ACS released the report Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.3  This document lays the groundwork for developing strong safety practices in academic environments.  A key section outlines suggested lab safety topics that should be taught in undergraduate chemistry programs during the first and second years as well as more advanced topics for the third and fourth years.  The report advocates for continuous learning throughout the curriculum and for integrating hazards analysis with the principles of the scientific method.  It also provides a table of resources that can be used to develop lessons for the curriculum.  Following in 2015, the ACS released Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories.4  This extensive report expands on the hazards analysis integration outlined in the earlier report and details areas of the hazard assessment process including hazard identification, roles and responsibilities, and assessing implementation.  The report also presents five specific tools with appropriate templates.  A corresponding web site translates these tools into the digital environment.5  Libraries should ensure both the web site and report are readily available to researchers.  Between the publication of these ACS reports, the National Research Council (NRC) convened a panel of experts from various areas and produced Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research.6  While this report may not be as useful for individual students, it does make recommendations for institutions, research groups, and training and learning.  It also discusses various campus roles (such as provosts, department chairs, safety professionals, and individual researchers) and what each can do to promote a safety culture.  These recent reports provide key background information and highlight the shift in academia from simply following the rules to building a broader safety culture.

Best Practices

The ACS report discussed above, Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories, is one example of a source for best practices.  However, a few other resources are also worth mentioning.  A classic in this area is Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards.7  The most recent 2011 edition modernizes and should replace the previous edition, published in 1995.  This new edition further emphasizes the culture of safety and takes a more expansive approach to chemicals in the lab, including biohazards, radioactive materials, and nanoparticles.  Prudent Practices provides a comprehensive overview of the entire laboratory environment and therefore should be available in most libraries even if only via access to the free online version.8

More focused resources are also available, such as Destruction of Hazardous Chemicals in the Laboratory.9  While appropriate for more advanced students and researchers, this resource is well-organized and provides detailed procedures for the destruction of specific compounds.  Organized by either specific compound or broader class of chemical compound, each entry includes a description of the compound, a narrative description of the destruction procedure, step-by-step instructions for destruction, appropriate analytical procedures to verify destruction, and related compound information.  A benefit to this compilation is that the authors have curated the destruction methods from the scientific literature and ongoing research, with each entry containing multiple citations.  As the title implies, however, the focus is on hazardous (and sometimes extremely hazardous) substances.  Therefore, the title may not prove as useful to first- and second-year students, but when needed can provide extremely specific information about a particular compound.  An additional advantage to this title is that it includes select methods related to biological toxins and to compounds of importance for pharmaceutical research.  This interdisciplinary nature makes it useful in a wider variety of advanced lab courses and beyond chemistry.

If there is intent to keep up with current trends in chemical safety in terms of news, best practices, and education, it would be useful to provide access to the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety.10  While journals are not the focus of the Resources for College Libraries database or this “Collecting to the Core” series, it is notable because even though this journal is an official publication of the ACS Division of Health and Safety, ACS Publications does not publish it.  Those institutions that subscribe to all ACS publications may be missing this title, and it is worth acquiring.

For Undergraduate Students

While the previous resources provide information on best practices for all researchers, some recent publications have been developed solely for undergraduate students.  Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students is a textbook (2nd edition, 2016) that the authors intend for use throughout the chemistry curriculum.11  Each chapter is divided into three areas: introductory (first-year), intermediate, and advanced topics, allowing students to reference different sections of the same chapter depending on their course and level of understanding.  Practice questions are provided at the end of each chapter.  Most importantly, in the 2010 first edition of this textbook the authors introduced the RAMP concept that has been widely adopted and is referenced heavily in recent reports by the ACS.  RAMP is a mnemonic that introduces a set of safety principles from which the more commonly encountered safety rules are derived.  By focusing safety education on RAMP, it encourages students, especially if they forget a specific rule, to apply the principles to minimize risk and related hazards regardless of the situation.  With this new approach to chemical safety education, students are encouraged to:  Recognize chemical hazards;  Assess the risks of the hazards present;  Minimize the risks of those hazards;  and Prepare for emergencies.

The ACS Joint Board-Council Committee on Chemical Safety released the eighth edition of Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories this year.12  It has been published in various forms since 1972 and remains a key publication, especially for academia.  The audience for the most recent edition has been further narrowed to first- and second-year students, and at less than 75 pages, it is heavily illustrated and readable.  It uses RAMP as a guiding principle and encourages students to take an active role regarding their safety in the lab.  Sidebars present questions for reflection or further discussion and “In Your Future” boxes highlight advanced topics student may encounter in later coursework.  Of note to information professionals, a two-page appendix includes a list of recommended web sites related to safety information.

Data (For Everyone)

In terms of communicating chemical safety information, there have been two major developments in recent years.  In 2012, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aligned with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) and in 2015 moved from the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) to requiring the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) format for communicating the hazards of various chemical products.13  Both of these changes were meant to bring the United States in line with international efforts towards standardization.  A vendor should produce an SDS for every compound it sells and because multiple vendors may sell the same compound this also means that there are multiple SDS for a single chemical compound.  Perhaps the best-known site that aggregates SDS from multiple sources is “Where to Find MSDS and SDS on the Internet.”14  This site is a pathway linking to other sites that either aggregate SDS or provide their own SDS.  Over 100 sites are listed across industry, government, and academic institutions.  The OSHA Occupational Chemical Database brings together data from multiple publications and sources into a single entry for a particular chemical compound.15  Similar to the SDS, it provides information on first aid, personal protection, emergency response, and exposure limits.  Besides the hazards of individual chemicals, there is also interest in identifying whether certain compounds are incompatible or highly reactive when in the same environment.  Two core resources specifically cover this type of information.  The Wiley Guide to Chemical Incompatibilities, while having an industrial focus, is still quite useful in the lab.16  Arranged alphabetically by compound name, it covers almost 9,000 profiles.  Each profile is a brief entry providing chemical and physical properties related to chemical safety, information about potential incompatibilities (e.g., forms explosive mixture with air, violently reacts with X, may form explosive sensitive materials when mixed with X, etc.), and specific information about extinguishing fires that involve the particular compound.  In some cases it also details more general incompatibility with construction or environmental situations (such as whether a compound corrodes plastics, metals, rubbers, or coatings).  A similar resource is Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards.17  A key difference is that Bretherick’s documents the source where the incompatibility was first noted, whether in a trade journal or scientific article, therefore it is focused on actual events, mainly in lab settings.  It also is composed of two volumes — the first addresses individual compounds like the Wiley Guide — but the second volume contains entries for broad classes of compounds that the Wiley source lacks.  Providing access to both of these complementary texts is ideal.

While not comprehensive, the works discussed here are key information resources for chemical safety in academic labs.  With continued emphasis on chemical information as it relates to chemical safety, librarians can ensure access to both free and licensed resources and, as a result, contribute to advancing a culture of safety at their institutions.  


  1.  Bertozzi, Carolyn R.  “Ingredients for a Positive Safety Culture.”  ACS Central Science 2, no. 11 (2016): 764-66.
  2.  U.S. Chemical Safety Board.  “Texas Tech University Chemistry Lab Explosion.” Accessed May 15, 2017.  http://www.csb.gov/texas-tech-university-chemistry-lab-explosion/
  3.  American Chemical Society.  Committee on Chemical Safety.  Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions: A Report of the Safety Culture Task Force of the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety.  Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, ACS Joint Board/Council Committee on Chemical Safety, 2012.  https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/about/governance/committees/chemicalsafety/academic-safety-culture-report-final-v2.pdf
  4.  Hazard Identification and Evaluation Task Force, Committee on Chemical Safety, American Chemical Society.  Identifying and Evaluating Hazards in Research Laboratories.  Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 2015.  https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/about/governance/committees/chemicalsafety/publications/identifying-and-evaluating-hazards-in-research-laboratories.pdf*
  5.  American Chemical Society.  “Hazard Assessment in Research Laboratories.” Accessed May 15, 2017.  https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/governance/committees/chemicalsafety/hazard-assessment.html*
  6.  National Research Council.  Committee on Establishing and Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Laboratory Research.  Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research.  Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2014.*
  7.  National Research Council.  Committee on Prudent Practices in the Laboratory.  Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards.  Updated edition.  Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2011.*
  8.  Ibid.  See also https://sms.asu.edu/sites/default/files/prudent_practices_in_the_lab_2011_national_academies_press.pdf.
  9.  Lunn, George, and Eric B. Sansone.  Destruction of Hazardous Chemicals in the Laboratory.  3rd edition.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2012.*
  10.  Elsevier.  “Journal of Chemical Health and Safety.” Accessed May 15, 2017.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/18715532
  11.  Hill, Robert H., and David C. Finster.  Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students.  2nd edition.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2016.*
  12.  American Chemical Society, Joint Board-Council Committee on Chemical Safety.  Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories.  8th edition.  Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 2017.*
  13.  Vereinte Nationen.  Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).  6th rev. edition.  New York: United Nations, 2015.  Accessed May 15, 2017.  http://www.unece.org/trans/danger/publi/ghs/ghs_rev06/06files_e.html
  14.  Interactive Learning Paradigms, Inc.  “Where to Find Material Safety Data Sheets on the Internet.” Accessed May 15, 2017.  http://www.ilpi.com/msds/*
  15.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor.  “OSHA Occupational Chemical Database.”  Accessed May 15, 2017.  https://www.osha.gov/chemicaldata/
  16.  Pohanish, Richard P., and Stanley A. Greene. Wiley Guide to Chemical Incompatibilities. 3rd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.*
  17.  Urben, P.G. (ed.). Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards. 8th edition. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier, 2017.*

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.



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