It might not be sexy or appealing, but it is vital and must be embedded in chemistry education

An image showing a health and safety manual on which someone scribbled 'exciting? no!). There are also safety goggles, ear defenders and the edge of a helmet visible

Source: Based on an image from © Shutterstock

Good health and safety saves lives. Nobody doubts this, but are chemistry students really aware of its importance? And do they think it’s sexy?

No, they’re not and no, they don’t. At the University of Liverpool, we ask our first year chemists their thoughts on health and safety (H&S); they never say sexy, exciting or engaging. Yet it’s a crucial element of their chemistry education.

Graduate recruiters, particularly those seeking science expertise, assume new employees have an appreciation of risk with the QAA benchmark statements for all laboratory-based subjects indicating some form of related competency. And indeed, H&S procedures within HEIs have been increasing, reaching the current common standard of HASMAP. Two influential factors are legal and financial, against the background of fines imposed by the Health and Safety Executive increasing by 80% in 2016-17. Morally we also have a duty of care when allowing inexperienced users into our laboratories.

Pre-university science curriculums expose students to appropriate H&S requirements, with some great advice and resources available, so are there underlying sociocultural factors contributing to the lack of interest? After all, we have all heard H&S as the butt of many jokes!

Within education, H&S training seems to fall right into the knowledge versus skills dichotomy. In the ongoing struggle trying to balance subject specific knowledge and employability skills, H&S training is rarely the main focus. Everyone knows it’s important, but do we put too much of the onus on learning about H&S on the student? It’s natural for educators to focus on more desirable parts of curriculum development, particularly when they’re all too aware that employers’ list of essential skills are more likely to include team work, resilience or commercial awareness. H&S seldom makes the list.

Teaching H&S in an engaging way

Anecdotal evidence suggests industrial partners believe HE isn’t doing enough to equip undergraduates with appropriate H&S knowledge and skills. Students are wonderfully curious, but not when it comes to H&S – which does not help. They are certainly often naive as most have, thankfully, never directly witnessed the effects of experimental failures in H&S. The initial level of awareness varies drastically from student to student, sometimes to a worryingly low level, with little perception of hazard or risk control. Traditional H&S training methods often don’t develop hazard perception skills, instead focusing on working independently via lectures and prelab documentation/tests. At the University of Liverpool we encourage more dynamic approaches.

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Source: © University of Liverpool

Could sharing immersive scenarios engage your students with essential H&S training?

For example, there are many routes to use with visual/active learning. Educators in Asia have used manga to engage students, while group work using safety teams to complete post-lab inspections has had some interesting results. We have been using 360° ‘bad-lab’ scenarios containing mock-ups of good and poor H&S practices. Others have used similar methods for lab inductions to build confidence. Gamification techniques, such as ‘escape the lab’ scenarios, offer interesting possibilities too.

To build in authenticity, you could try developing activities in collaboration with industry. We task our chemists with reporting ‘near-misses’ in the laboratory, a common industrial practice.

Put things in context, for example by linking undergraduate and research processes. Show and discuss relatable examples of when H&S goes wrong. Don’t underestimate the power of the personal; share your own experience with students. And get students in on the act, for example, actively measuring chemical waste will improve their handling skills.

Embedding H&S in the curriculum

H&S courses could be stand-alone modules at key points in the curriculum, but this may require wholescale changes. We advocate complementing pre-existing methods (ie lectures and prelabs) with new assignments where H&S becomes the main focus of learning. Rather than just adding content, consider making space for H&S assignments by removing an experiment from a course, or removing the post-experimental requirements for an experiment where the technique itself was the key learning outcome. Consider using five minutes of a lab-related workshop for weekly safety briefings; this was deemed popular in Liverpool.

All these suggestions have one key goal of decoupling H&S training to become the emphasis of the learning, with regular and engaging reinforcement, and not just a barrier to accessing the lab. H&S training might never be sexy, but we can certainly all work together to make it more attractive.

James Gaynor is a chemistry lecturer and David Donaghy is the School of EEE & Computer Science health & safety officer and lab manager at the University of Liverpool