Timestamps:

[0:00] Introduction

[0:57] Who is Jason Williams?

Background

[2:00] What does being a chemical hygienist actually entail?

[4:04] Can you tell me a little bit of your story of how you became a chemical hygiene officer?  Was there any other occupation you were interested in throughout your educational career?

[8:08] As a chemical hygiene officer right now, do you have any specific advice to anyone interested in taking this route or becoming a chemical hygiene officer?

[11:14] Can you please describe one or two struggles but also one or two benefits that one has if he or she chooses to become a chemical hygiene officer?

Lab Safety Procedures

[13:54] Can you describe the main important lab safety procedures that you wish to communicate with the Amherst College community today?

[16:16] Are there any “unwritten” rules that you can describe when working in a lab?

COVID 19 Advice

[18:49] As you know, we are definitely living in a day and age in which we have to take the utmost precautions for our safety, especially as a small liberal arts school.  How does COVID change precautions that we normally had in terms of the lab itself?

[22:41] In your opinion, how important do you think is direct and indirect communication when it comes to working during these unprecedented times?

Conclusion

[24:58] Where can students, whether remote or on-campus, find you best throughout the school year if they have any questions or if they want to have a quick conversation with you?

[27:19] Do you have any last pieces of advice for Amherst students, faculty, etc.?

Credits:

Publisher: Amherst STEM Network

Podcasts Coordinator: Julia Zabinska

Music Composer: Grace Geeganage

Cover Art Designer: Chloe Kim

Episode 4: Meet Chemical Hygiene Officer Jason Williams

Host: Brandon Kwon '23

In today’s podcast, we introduce you to Jason Williams, Amherst College’s very own chemical hygiene officer.  During this conversation, Jason highlights his background upon how he became a chemical hygiene officer in the first place, along with basic lab safety procedures one ought to know when working in the lab.  He also mentions significant advice surrounding lab safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  He is open to any questions that anyone has either about lab safety or about his role at Amherst College.

Transcript:

[0:00] Hello, and welcome to the Amherst STEM Network podcast.  My name is Brandon Kwon, your host for today’s episode, where we talk to Jason Williams about his role as a chemical hygiene officer at Amherst College and the effects of COVID upon lab safety.

[0:34] Hello, listeners. If you are tuning in today, my name is Brandon Kwon. I'm a sophomore here at Amherst College. And today, I'm privileged to introduce Amherst College's chemical hygienist, Mr. Jason Williams. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to have this conversation with me. And to start from the get-go: can you please introduce yourself? Who are you exactly?

So like you've said, my name is Jason Williams, I'm the college's chemical hygiene officer. I've been here two years… Well, technically one and a half, right, because the last six months doesn't count. I've been here two years, I work primarily out of the Science Center, because obviously that's where we store most of our chemicals. And that's where we generate a lot of our waste, chemical waste. But technically, I'm the chemical hygiene officer for the entire campus. So sometimes I'm in Beneski, sometimes I'm in the art department. Even Val has oil, which is regulated by Massachusetts.  So yeah, I'm all over campus.

[2:00] So, right now, we're going to start with a little background questions to get to know you a little bit better. And so Mr. Williams, can you please explain what does being a chemical hygienist actually entail?

The technical term is chemical hygiene officer. And so pretty much a chemical hygiene officer is a position that's mandated by the government. So every school that has chemicals, and generates chemical waste, has to have a chemical hygiene officer. And pretty much my duties include the management use, handling, sorry, the proper handling, management, use and disposal of chemicals. So anything from, you know, meeting with professors and consulting about various procedures that they might be doing to how to dispose of waste. But in a more general sense, actually, my job is even broader than that. Because once there's a chemical in a building, almost anything in that building could be my problem. So if somebody were to spill water in a hallway and walked away from it, nobody would know that's water. And so that becomes my problem. Because technically, your chemical, the direction the door opens, might influence how things work in a lab, you know, whether the heat works, that might or the AC works, that might influence when equipment works. So it's a lot of other things. Well, the one thing that COVID has done for me is that it has helped explain what it really means. So, going forward, I hope I don't really have to explain that too much.  But yeah, when it comes to the wearing of PP, the use of engineering controls such as fume hoods, and just, you know, whatever ways to properly use, manage and dispose of chemicals.

[4:04] Can you tell me a little bit of your story of how you became a chemical hygiene officer?  Was there any other occupation you were interested in throughout your educational career?

I've taken a little bit of a different route. Since becoming a chemical hygiene officer, I think most people are either a teacher, and you were told by the department chair that you have to do it because somebody had to because when all the regulations came in, somebody just had to do it. Or like in my case, it's just a field that somehow you ended up in. So when I was in college, freshman year, brand new, actually new to the country even so I didn't even know any regulations, as it pertains to the States, I was looking for a job and I wanted to work in a lab. So I went to the lab manager. And, you know, for teaching labs, and I said, “Hey, can I have a job?” And she said yes, but she also happened to be the safety officer. And so I started working for her and I really enjoyed the lab stuff quite a bit. But I also got introduced to the safety side of it as well, because obviously those two kind of intertwine when you're the lab manager, there's a lot of you know, your position is pretty broad. And so there's a lot of safety concerns and stuff that you get involved with. And eventually I started becoming the person that was responsible for all the chemical waste. Yeah, and then the company that we use to dispose of our chemical waste, actually recruited me after college. So I worked as a lab pack chemist, which means I went to hundreds of hospitals and college campuses to pack hazardous waste, which it's like, you'd spend three, four days, like the University of Iowa, and you would, you know, write up all the way some packet and transport in a certain way, and bring it back to the plan for either incineration or recycling, or whatever forms of disposal was appropriate for that particular set of chemical. And so now, at this point, I had already seen almost every chemical there is in the universe, you know, and so I, so I really, really loved it. Um, and yeah, so after that, I went to grad school. And funny enough, I didn't study any of that in grad school, I tried to fulfill my lifelong career path of being an agronomist. So I was very interested in soil science and, and even subsurface water and how all of that affects soils, but also the growth of crops as well, as a result of that. So I really wanted to become an agronomist.  I went to grad school, started agronomy, and absolutely hated it.  It was one of those things where I guess it taught me what I didn't want to do, you know, so I'm still interested in the area, but I'm not really interested in going out in the field and collecting all these samples and stuff like that. So, um, so after that, I got a job at the University of Missouri as the chemistry lab manager, which is a huge institution, and I was managing 4000 students coming in out of the lab every week. So again, I got a lot more chemical exposure and a lot more lab safety exposure. You know, I ended up basically teaching TA's how to teach their labs and thinking about chemical use and exposures and stuff like that. So at that time, I had so much experience in chemical handling, chemical management, lab management, lab safety issues, and lab disposal procedures that I was, you know, on the right path to become an actual chemical hygiene officer. So the time came, I applied here, and yeah, and I got it, and I got the job. So yeah, that's how I became a chemical hygiene officer.

[8:08] As a chemical hygiene officer right now, do you have any specific advice to anyone interested in taking this route or becoming a chemical hygiene officer?

 

Yeah, very much. So actually, it's something I like talking about, because I feel like when you're in college, you know, nobody really knows the non-traditional pathways that you can take. So it's usually to become a doctor or go teach or work in a lab. And that's pretty much it, you know, you don't really understand that there are actually different pathways out there to fulfill your dream of being a scientist.  In my particular case, it's even better because I'm an environmental scientist by education, or an agronomist, but we don't talk about that.  Yeah, but I also get to do some chemistry. So for me, it's even better because I'm, I'm combining two subfields of science into one. So you know, you're either told to be a chemist in a lab or be a doctor in a hospital or something like that. So I like showing people that there are lots of other ways out there for you to fulfill your dream of being a scientist. So if you want to become a chemical hygiene officer, I'd just say pay attention from the time you're in class. But the good thing for me is that I pretty much was doing this job as a freshman in college, right. And so I never got the chance to ever do anything wrong in the lab. But it also has helped me though, to understand where students come from, because I was also a student in the lab. So pay attention to the procedures in the lab because I realized that when you're lab students, you don't really think about that side of it, you really want to get the results and get your grade and get them out of the way. If you look around in the list, take a step back look around in the lab and you realize that nothing is in there an accident, you know, from the from the placement of the of the eyewash station, to the chemical in the hood, to the floor to the chair you're sitting on to the you know what's in the ceiling, the ventilation in the room, even the direction the door opens. All of those were thought of, so just take a step back and think about it from a bigger picture. The other thing I want to say about this is, if you're interested in science in general, and you don't necessarily know where exactly you want to go, this is a good area for you, because it's a lot of things combined. So as I said, I get to talk about chemical disposal, that's environmental science, what happens to our chemicals after they get disposed of? Are they going back into the atmosphere? Or are they going through water resources? And so that's all environmental science. But at the same time, obviously, I'm doing chemical reactions, talking about chemical reactions. And so that's hard chemistry, you know, um, and so on. And so if you're just interested in science, but you're not really any like chemicals, but you're not really sure exactly where you want to go with this, this is definitely a good field.

 

[11:14] Can you please describe one or two struggles but also one or two benefits that one has if he or she chooses to become a chemical hygiene officer?

 

I’ll start with the benefits.  I guess the first thing is, because you're a consultant, pretty much for everybody, you get to meet a ton of people. So I know every single professor, I've been to everybody's lab, and I get to know about everybody's research, because I'm a science enthusiast. That excites me, you know, because again, you know, I could be talking biochemistry one day, and the next day, I could be talking organic chemistry, environmental science, you know, I could go to a physics lab, and we're talking about some physics stuff. So the one good thing is that you get to get to know a lot of people and you get to talk about science all the time.  Another benefit, I guess, would be that I mean, just in a professional sense, that the doors are way open after this, you know, after you become a chemical hygiene officer.  I mean, I could work for the NIH, I could work for the CDC, I could work for Pfizer, I could work for DOW. So you can go any direction after this with it because you have so much knowledge.  I could go be an EHS manager. So there are tons of directions you can take, once you become a chemical hygiene officer, because you learn from so many different angles. So that's some benefits.  As far as negatives go,  like every job of course, there are tons of negatives as well. Um, politics, that's that's one thing. So, you know, no matter how good you are, you're always gonna get some fight back about some regulation that's out there. Which is ironic, because I don't make the regulations, but that's a whole different thing.  Um, yeah, so you're always going to get fight backs. So there's some level of politics there, you have to choose your battles really, really well. So that's definitely one negative. Another negative is that I mean, you're always in the firing line, you know? If anything goes wrong, you know, people are going to come to you and ask questions, you know, you're directly in the firing line. Why wasn't this in place? Why has somebody not told me about this? And so yeah, that kind of, you know, puts you on the edge a little bit. But yeah, there are tons more benefits. And there are negatives.

 

[13:54] Can you describe the main important lab safety procedures that you wish to communicate with the Amherst College community today?

 

The first one is the wearing of PPE.  The reason why that's super important is because that actually starts before you get into the lab.  So you leave your room, whether you put on close-toed shoes or flip flops, that's all lab safety. You know, that's a lab safety decision. So whether you're wearing long sleeves, whether you’re wearing leggings, or jeans, all of those matter, you know?  And so just just to realize how important the wearing of PPE is, and that PPE is not just about goggles and gloves. You know, it's a lot more than that. There are different types of gloves, there are different types of lab coats: you know, there are fire resistant lab coats, for example, if you're working with something that were pyrophoric. And so just to really step back and really understand the function that PPE plays, and how they're really designed to protect you. So that's, that's one thing. Another thing, and I think every chemical hedging officer out there would agree with me, is labeling. So labeling is always a big thing, um, because people tend to think a little bit more about themselves when it comes to these things. So, for example, they'd be in the lab and they pour a chemical into a container, and they know what it is so they don't necessarily think that it's necessary for them to label it, but then they walk away. And then the next person who comes in doesn't know what it is. And that's where we get into problems.  Even if that chemical is water, by the way, you're in the lab. Most things in a lab that are liquid look like clear liquids, you know, so you can pour water into a beaker and walk away. And you know that it's water, but the next person who walks up does not know that that's water. So labeling is really, really important. Again, not just for lab personnel, but also if there were an accident in your lab and the first responder were to walk in, they're not necessarily chemists.  They don't necessarily know what chemicals are in the lab, or even the custodian, because they could walk in. And again, they wouldn't know necessarily what you're working with if you didn't communicate that hazard labeling. So labeling is very, very, very, very, very important.

 

[16:16] Are there any “unwritten” rules that you can describe when working in a lab?

 

There are a lot of things that, you know, you can't really... they seem trivial, even though they're super important, trivial relative to other things. So you don't mention the 60 trainings, for example.  But if I ever had a conversation with somebody I definitely included in that stuff, like, the wearing off of headphones, for example. Um, and while I would never see anybody in the lab wearing headphones, and say anything to them, um, you can see how that technically could cause problems in the lab. You know, if there were a fire alarm, for example, would you be able to hear it, you know? Sometimes you can hear a drip, you know, if there was a drip happening behind you, you wouldn't be able to hear it, because you're listening to music. So just little things like that, if you're wearing headphones, maybe let's use one side instead of two, you know, little things like that.  In my previous institution, I used to see students wear close toed shoes that would only cover their toes, you know, because it says close toed shoes. And so their whole foot would be exposed. And I guess the message I want to bring across here is that it's not just about following the regulations, it's really about being actually safe. So do the safest things in the lab, not just follow the regulations. You know, another one, for example, is the wearing of gloves. You know, we say don't wear gloves outside of the lab. But in fact, even when you're in the lab, if you're going to touch certain things, take your gloves off, you know?  There are a lot of people who scratch their face with gloves on, you know, and then their face continues to itch. You know, it's like why is it itching? Well, you were touching your face with the gloves. You know, so little things like that, you know, touching your cell phone with gloves on. You know, so it's stuff like that, that people need to start practicing a little bit better.

 

[18:49] As you know, we are definitely living in a day and age in which we have to take the utmost precautions for our safety, especially as a small liberal arts school.  How does COVID change precautions that we normally had in terms of the lab itself?

 

Yeah, um, this is something that most people don't realize is a thing. COVID has changed a lot in labs. Um, I'm gonna start with the most obvious one, to me anyways: PPE. So, obviously, you have additional PPE that you need to wear now. And so that affects things. In fact, anything you change in the lab, any type of procedural changes in the lab is going to affect lab safety, right? So for example, if you wear a mask these days, you'll realize that when you wear goggles, they fog up quite a bit. You know, so maybe you need to buy different types of goggles now. You know, or maybe you just need to step outside for a second and aerate the goggles a little bit. And so that's been a challenge, just the additional PPE that you need to wear. In fact, even the wearing of masks, surgical masks, can affect lab safety, in the sense that if you were working with certain types of organic chemicals or working with fire, let's say. You don't want to be using those masks because those maps are synthetic. You want to use something that's made of natural fabric because, again, that could melt.  If an organic chemical were to get in contact with your mask, it melts your face, you know? So it's stuff like that. Same thing with face shields.  If you're wearing one of those plastic face shields, if it got exposed to certain types of organic chemicals, that could spell bad news for you as well. So in that sense, it's changed a lot of stuff. Another thing that I also realize is, now people are using directional arrows and stuff in the lab, which is all good and well, except, you know, a lot of people would have like,”Come through this door, but leave through this door.” And so the problem that might pose is that now you might have chemicals end up in spaces that they wouldn't have normally. So if the exit door now goes to the room in which you eat, you're bringing chemicals for people here, that would be a random space. So if you had people going through Door A, and Door B goes to the random space, now you're going to have chemicals in the right place. So it's little things like that, also the wearing of gloves outside of laboratories.  People want to wear gloves to protect their hands in terms of COVID. But if you're wearing the same gloves that you were wearing in the lab, now you're contaminating all the door handles, as well.  So, a lot has changed there that people don't realize. Another big one is how you use equipment. So in training, as well, if you're training somebody to use an equipment, now you have to do remotely, and so they're not as well trained as they might have been had they, you know, if they were able to be within six feet, you know? And so you could easily see somebody getting stuck by a needle, or by a razor or something like that, you know?  And so that's how COVID is affecting stuff there because you can't really do it close enough to get properly trained. So that’s another big challenge. There are tons of them. But obviously, the challenge that we face right now is that most people are more worried about COVID than they're worried about lab safety, you know? They still need to go hand and hand. And so that's the biggest challenge, really, that we're facing.

 

[22:41] In your opinion, how important do you think is direct and indirect communication when it comes to working during these unprecedented times?

 

Yeah, a lot of communication of all different forms. Yeah, I think the one thing I miss the most is just to be able to go to somebody's lab and see what's going on, as much as I used to. So for example, somebody could ask me a question. What I usually tend to do is go to their labs and answer the question, because then I can see, I can see exactly what's going on. And I, you know, can find three, four other problems, you know? I missed that direct kind of communication with the person.  Instead of sending 14 emails, I could just go see it, and I could solve it in one minute.  So that's really important. And I think things aren't the same in that respect. But it's very important to meet in person, it's very important to do Zoom, it's very important to put stuff in text. And by text, I don’t mean cell phone text.  I mean, write stuff down. All of that matters. In my field, unfortunately, it's also a legal field in some ways, right? Because people's lives and livelihoods are at risk here. And so what you tell people, sometimes you need to just write it down. So it's really important to have all that on paper, you know?  If I told you to use hydrochloric acid in the hood, and you don't use it in the hood, well, it says on the training that you're supposed to use in the hood. So that needs to be written down. obviously. I'm not sure if I'm answering your question., but my point is, I just think various forms of communication are necessary, especially when it comes to being a chemical hygiene officer. Sometimes it's necessary to go to the lab, sometimes it's necessary to send the email because you need a hard copy of the conversation. Sometimes you need to meet on zoom, because you might better explain what's going on than to actually be there in person.

 

[24:58] Where can students, whether remote or on-campus, find you best throughout the school year if they have any questions or if they want to have a quick conversation with you?

 

Email is easy. My email is jwilliams@amherst.edu, so that's really easy. I have my phone on me all the time because I know that people might have questions.  I checked my phone more often than most people. You also never really know when it's life and death.  I don't want to use that hyperbole, but it's true. So I always have my phone on me. So email is good. But also, because of my personality, I'm always walking around the building talking to people.  If you see me in the hallway, definitely, you know, reach out to me there. I'm always, you know, open to having a conversation about anything lab safety related. Or, you know, you just set up a meeting with me, and I'll try to make it. I might even give people tours of certain, maybe not during COVID time, but in general, our main accumulation area where we store and dispose of all our chemical waste. You know, I'd give people tours of that and stuff or just other parts of the building that they might not know about that's related to my job. So email, if you see me in the hallway, you know, talk to me, I'm pretty open. As I said before, I'm usually in the science center. So you come in here and you spend long enough, you will definitely see me. I'm literally walking around the building all the time. One thing that I try to do is, I could look up, for example, the room number by just going online. But I'd rather walk there to go look at the room door, because I know that sometimes people don't really have questions for you until they see you. So I try to walk around the building as much as possible, just to be available if indirectly, at least. So, you know, a lot of times, people see me are like, “Oh, Jason, by the way, I was thinking this...”  So that always helps.

 

[27:19] Do you have any last pieces of advice for Amherst students, faculty, etc.?

 

Yeah, I guess I'll go deep, and I’ll give two pieces of advice.  The deeper one, obviously, has to do with my job. And before I say it, I'm gonna say Amherst is probably one of the safest schools out there. So, you know, a lot of students care, we have the best resources,i.e. me. I'm joking. So we don't have to worry too much. However, I still try to implore people to obviously be as safe as possible, you know. And it's in everything you do when it comes to this stuff.  When walking around with a chemical, just make sure that you use, for example, a secondary container because think about the worst: if that spilled, you never know the damage that could cost. And again, it could just be the fact that it could damage the floor. You know, it's not necessarily that somebody got exposed. So in every single thing you do, the clothes you wear to work, all of those things, just think about it from a chemical hygienist point of view. And in general, just for the students, I mean, it's a weird time. It's a weird time that we're going through, and this is gonna sound weird, but try to enjoy it, you know? You'll be able to tell the story for your grandkids, man. I mean, you know, enjoy it as much as possible, you know? Make experiences; they're not going to be the same experiences, compared to what they would have been, but still try to make some experiences. Take as many pictures, you know, wearing a mask as possible. Little things like that, so that later on, you'll have this story, you know? So yeah, just maybe document what's going on. That will definitely help. In 10 years, in some ways you will forget about this. Obviously, nobody will ever forget about it, but in some ways you forget about the, you know, the nooks and crannies of your daily life, you know?  So document it and enjoy it as much as possible.

[29:08]  Thank you, Jason, for joining me and the Amherst STEM Network today.  If you were listening in today, stay curious, stay informed, and stay tuned for more.

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