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WVU chemistry wins national safety award

Thanks to facility renovations, research innovations and in-class lessons, West Virginia University’s C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry has received the nation’s top undergraduate safety program award in chemistry – for a second time.

The American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Health and Safety’s SafetyStratus College and University Health and Safety Award recognizes an outstanding comprehensive laboratory safety program in higher education undergraduate study.

Gregory Dudley
Gregory Dudley

“We’re dealing with harmful, dangerous substances, both in terms of exposure to the individuals and contamination to the broader environment. We have a responsibility and an obligation to take safety very seriously, and we do,” said Gregory Dudley, department chair and professor. “We see it beyond that, though. Because safety is so centrally important to what chemistry is about, we see this as a professional development responsibility and opportunity for our students. That philosophy is something that sets our department apart. It allows our department to go further in safety.”

WVU is one of only two universities to win this prestigious award more than once, also receiving it in 2001. The other repeat recipient is Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

Barbara Foster
Barbara Foster

“Since first receiving the award nearly 20 years ago, the departmental safety program has undergone a transformation in terms of faculty, staff and student understanding of and ownership of a culture of safety,” said Barbara Foster, director of laboratory safety for the Department of Chemistry and safety officer for the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “All aspects of the safety program have been strengthened and improved, from teaching undergraduates about safety concepts to concerted efforts to reduce the amounts of hazardous wastes that are produced in the academic laboratories.”

The most extensive changes since receiving the 2001 award are seen in the undergraduate courses, proactively initiated by faculty and graduate teaching and research assistants. The faculty have added a section on hazards and precautions in their lab notebooks and laboratory grading guidelines. Students are expected to record data in their notebooks regarding pertinent hazards associated with each experiment. The faculty also include “Safety Minutes” during their weekly research seminars to allow graduate students to discuss specific safety issues for an audience of undergraduate researchers, other graduate students and faculty.

Safety shower
Safety shower

“We are not just making sure we are safe and following the regulations. Safety is part of how we train our students. Our graduate students take that professional development and education directly into the undergraduate chemistry labs as safety-conscious teaching assistants,” Dudley said. “Our students graduate as excellent chemists. Part of that training is that they are aware of chemical safety and all the chemical protocols, and they are well-versed in how to navigate that and communicate it with others. Our grads can point to specific priorities and things they’ve done related to safety, and that can be a real difference-maker to companies.”

Safety continues to be the department’s first priority as it prepares students for careers in industry, academia, health sciences and government.

“The department’s commitment to a culture of safety will enable students to be more employable when they graduate. Our students are learning important aspects of safety and safety management in labs,” Foster said. “I’ve given numerous presentations all over the country about safety and laboratory management. Employers want students to know about safety. They want them to enter their workforces and be an asset in their labs. Knowing about safety and being able to follow safety rules and having that mindset of a safety culture makes our graduates more  competitive in today’s job market.”

Chemistry lab
Chemistry prep room

Upon arriving at WVU in 2016, Dudley collaborated with Foster and Eberly College Dean Gregory Dunaway on much-needed efforts to renovate, expand and modernize the department’s organic chemistry preparation room.

“Safety programs are most successful when they are valued and supported by upper administration. We are fortunate that our department chair and Office of the Dean fully support our efforts to promote a culture of safety,” Foster said. “They generously provide the funds that are required to ensure a successful undergraduate laboratory safety program. Our leadership, faculty, staff and students understand that a successful safety program requires the daily commitment of everyone to ensure that we maintain a healthy environment in which to teach, learn and conduct research.”

As the safety lead in both the Eberly College and the chemistry department for more than 30 years, Foster oversees all safety-related initiatives, including policy, inventories, inspections, assessments and more. She is also the point of contact in case of emergencies.

Chemistry lab manual
Lab manual

“Our safety program would be great no matter what, but it is a national model of excellence because of Barbara Foster. More specifically, it’s now recognized again with this national safety award because of her,” Dudley said. “The award was given to our department in recognition of this department’s legacy of safety excellence under Barbara’s leadership. This is a lifetime achievement award. It is a recognition of sustained growth and excellence in safety.”

The recognition includes a commemorative plaque and $1,000 award. Foster will also present on laboratory safety best practices at the ACS national meeting in August 2021, slated to be in Atlanta and offered virtually.

This ongoing commitment to safety demonstrates how the department continues to embrace the WVU values of service, curiosity, respect, accountability and appreciation.  

“We’ve worked hard to create, promote and maintain a culture of safety, which I can see in the results of my inspections. I always say, inspect to protect your people. People continue to embrace this culture of safety, which is thinking before you do something, consider a risk assessment and act accordingly,” Foster said. “When you have such a culture of safety where people have this mindset that safety is our priority, the graduate students and postdocs pick it up from the faculty and share it with the undergraduates. Everyone in our department contributes to the positive safety culture. This is a great department in which to teach, learn and conduct research – safely.”