Lab Safety: A Chemical Hygiene Officer’s Story

Amherst College Science Center

On September 17th, 2020, I had the opportunity to talk to Amherst College’s own chemical hygiene officer, Jason Williams. Bringing his great sense of humor and vast amount of knowledge to the table, Jason (he prefers to be called by his first name, trust me) was able to fully explain his background, lab safety in general, and the impacts of COVID on lab safety.

Jason’s path to becoming a chemical hygiene officer was not a short one. In his freshman year of college, he was in search of a job, especially one that involved lab work. Fortunately, he was able to work under the presence of one of his college’s chemical safety officers. This led him on a path that included becoming a lab pack chemist (someone responsible for handling hazardous waste materials) and finally, a grad student. During this time, he was studying to become an agronomist, which he would soon hate. After his graduate studies, He was able to eventually secure a job at the University of Missouri as the chemical lab manager where he taught professors how to manage the lab chemicals. After gaining much experience, he was then moved out to Amherst, and we can thank Jason for the many things he does at Amherst College, including stocking up shelves with chemicals and communicating with others about the importance of lab safety.

Now, when working in the lab, you may think that there are rules “written” on a bulletin board that you can just walk up to in case you forget a safety procedure. I mean, this can be the case in some labs, but Jason can assure you that most of the labs you work in your lifetime (if you choose to do so) don’t have this: instead, according to Jason, most of lab safety procedures we take when working in a lab is catered towards our common sense, including taking off your gloves when exiting a lab. He explains how when working, we must be aware of many of these “unwritten rules” so that we can effectively conduct the experiments we want to perform. Along with these “unwritten rules” are the main lab procedures he explains: you must wear PPE when entering the lab (including wearing close-toed shoes, goggles, and gloves) and label all tools and chemicals you use when performing protocols.

When it comes to working during the pandemic, it comes most obvious to Jason that lab members must wear additional PPE. This includes face shields and possibly surgical masks to prevent the spread of the virus itself. He also refers to directional aides in taking chemicals from one place to another. He emphasizes the need to take extra precautions in terms of remembering where you place your chemicals for the safety of others. For example, he states, “the challenge we face right now is most people are more worried about COVID instead of lab safety.” He asserts that lab safety and COVID go hand-and-hand: just because we take extra precautions for COVID does not mean we lose these restrictions when the pandemic ends.

Thank you, Jason, for keeping us safe and your immeasurable help and being a critical faculty member for the campus of Amherst College. None of what we discover in our labs would be possible without your help.