Safety. It’s one of those words that when chemists hear it our natural inclination is to roll our eyes and find anything else to think about. Why is that? One observation I had from our lab’s safety inspection this past week was how many little non-hazardous things were picked on.

For example: Acetone spray bottles (properly labeled) sitting in the same secondary container for our organic waste (located in the hood). Apparently this is an EHS deadly sin. It was a major focus of our safety inspection. No mention that we only have 1 hazardous materials standard operating procedure (SOP) that vaguely covers a range of chemicals from n-Butyllitium to Chloromethyl methyl ether (MOM-Cl).

So yeah, when EHS comes by it’s no wonder we don’t really take to heart what they say. Because we know what the real dangers are in our labs, but EHS picks on spray bottle locations.

Image credit: The Safety Net (

Safety: who’s job is it anyway?

If you are just starting in a lab you will likely go through your annual safety training online, answer some questions, meet with people in lab who will give you a brief overview, and go on your way. That’s been my experience in the 7 labs I have worked with over the last decade. And it’s a recipe for disaster.

Ultimately it is your responsibility as a chemist to know the hazards you are working with and around. However, that is a large barrier to overcome to ensure everyone is being safe. So, wouldn’t it be great if there was a resource that all chemistry labs could use as a primer for safety, how to work with certain hazardous materials (SOPs), and how to safely run reactions?

Well you’re in luck because such a resource does exist. And my goal with this post is to help increase awareness of this resource.

The Safety Net: your primer to lab safety

Image credit: The Safety Net (

Last month a collaborative effort by Prof. Alexander Miller of UNC Chapel Hill and Prof. Ian Tonks of UMN-Twin Cities published The Safety Net as a new resource for academic synthetic chemists.

Here’s what you need to know and how you can make the most of this resource:

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): Pre-made and ready for download

The Safety Net’s collection of SOPs is still in it’s infancy but covers things that I never thought to have an SOP for (but now am glad it exists), like cleaning glassware, and things that I knew we should have an SOP for (but never bothered making it), like the base bath or Aqua Regia.

Currently, there are 40 such SOPs ready for download.

How should you use it?

  1. Have your lab safety officer download any relevant SOPs that your lab is not currently using.
  2. Make every member of the lab review and sign the SOPs yearly. They don’t have to prove to you that they memorized the SOP. The point is that they are aware of the hazard, generally how to avoid it, and know where to look for information before working with said hazard.
  3. Upload your lab’s SOPs that are not in the current collection. The strength of The Safety Net lies in collaboration from the chemistry community. The resource was seemingly designed for this intent. So let’s help make this tool as great as we can.

Safe Operating Cards (SOCs): Be aware of the hazards around you

Do you know what’s in the hood next to you? Image credit:

I’ll admit that I usually don’t know what type of reactions my fellow lab members are running. Sure, I know what they talked about at group meeting. But do I know enough to know what to do in the event that something goes awry in their hood when they are absent? Heck no.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Safety Net has available for download several different types of SOCs that can be printed out.

Here’s what to do with them:

  1. Print the one you like the best.
  2. Laminate a hand full of them
  3. Tape these card holders at each hood sash
  4. Mandate the use of them (this also gets people thinking about safety for each reaction)
  5. People still not using them? Either bring up to the PI, or better, keep a coin jar in lab and charge people 25 cents per violation.
  6. Put that money towards the lab coffee beer fund.

Synthetic Procedures: Database of hazardous reactions

There is also a section in The Safety Net for finding and adding your favorite and “safest” synthetic procedure for common reagents and transformations.  However, this section’s strength will really rely on individuals adding their input.

A second resource I’d like to introduce here is the Chemical Safety Library. This was nicely introduced back in March by C&EN here. Essentially, this is a database where chemists can look up and upload reactions that they have done and the safety concerns with the reaction. This initially, started as a push from Bristol-Myers Squibb to find a way to share information about accidents and hazards associated with particular reactions. It is now available for all chemists in industry and academia to register and begin contributing or learning.

Where do we go from here?

My hope is that you find these tools of interest and begin using them. As a PhD student if we aren’t being conscious about the hazards to our health, then really what is the point of even doing the chemistry? Seriously. Play time is over and it’s time to take responsibility for our safety, that of those around us, and our effect on the environment. Being several steps ahead of EHS on your safety inspections is the first place to start.

In the words of Red: “Remember, I’m pulling for you, we’re all in this together.”



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