Creating a safety-conscious culture in a research lab

Jonathan Veinot and his team make safety a core value and a shared responsibility through open discussions and routine practices.


Safety as a shared core value is paramount to ensuring you, your colleagues, students and visitors remain healthy and safe. It’s what helps us to conduct our research, facilitate our teaching practices and support our administrative responsibilities. And, there are so many safety stewards across our campus communities who are addressing diverse safety needs. 

Dr. Jonathan Veinot, professor and chemistry associate chair (research) in the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science and principal investigator/supervisor of the Veinot Research Group believes people are at the core of safety. He shares how supporting others to be safety leaders can establish opportunities to address safety concerns as a team, and how incorporating safety practices into everyday life can strengthen attitudes and behaviours toward safety as a core value – on and off campus.

Why are safety practices so important to you and your team?

I manage a team of thirteen people that includes undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows. Our goal is to build a sustainable team model where everyone feels confident they can contribute meaningfully. This involves aspects related to safety and spans the different facilities we access to conduct our research in nanomaterials, hybrid nanostructures and organic functional materials.

Our team has always been very safety conscious. We use a particular reagent in our work, hydrofluoric acid, that is exceptionally dangerous. We have safety seminars specific to this reagent every academic term so that everyone can get a refresher on proper handling procedures, what safety measures and policies to follow, who to contact for assistance, etc.. Nobody can work with it until they go through careful certification. Building safety practices into what we do helps establish it as part of our routine so that it’s second nature. When we have had minor incidents occur with this particular reagent, we knew exactly what to do, as we had learned to respond appropriately so that the individuals involved remained healthy and safe.

How did you and your team establish this safety culture?

Over time, we consciously created an environment where everyone can discuss safety concerns and incidents openly. For example, going back to the certification process involving hydrofluoric acid, if after receiving training someone on our team wants additional support or instruction, that’s okay. We have made it clear that there is nothing wrong with asking for what you need to feel safe and confident in handling this and other dangerous components. We have built a community that feels confident concerns will be addressed. On our team, everyone has input and the tools to raise safety concerns of their own.

We built the culture within the group simply because we didn't want anybody to get hurt. I would never be able to forgive myself if somebody I worked with got hurt. People are at the core of safety. We incorporate this attitude into the research we conduct and the training we provide. We have built trust that we’ve got each others’ backs, everyone is conscious of the fact that we are all responsible for the safety of ourselves and each other within the group. 

Did the pandemic affect how you and your team conducted your work on campus?

When COVID-19 first started, we shut the lab down for approximately three weeks to clean everything, review our safety procedures and update our chemical inventory. We all worked together to determine what we could do and how to approach things safely. Our team has always been a tight knit group but this process brought us even closer together.

Prior to the pandemic, safety in the community wasn't really discussed as openly and willingly as it is now. It’s not that safety concerns weren’t real, but perhaps we were not as fully aware of how commonplace health and safety risks are present in our everyday practices. 

What are some strategies you can offer others who are trying to build and sustain a culture of care within their team?

Ask for help, ask often. Ask others who are not your “peers” or have the same title/role as you. Encouraging diversity of opinions and perspectives improves my ability to engage with others through their lens. And, recognize when others know more about something than you, including health and safety practices and challenges. Listen to the input around you and use communication channels that work with your team members.

As someone in a leadership role, I acknowledge there is a certain degree of fear around the possibility of someone being injured or harmed. That fear can be disarmed through communication and reminding myself that people are at the heart of it all. When there’s a safety issue raised, whether here on campus or somewhere else, discuss it with your team. Make a conscious effort to learn why it happened, how it could have been avoided and what your team might do differently. Allow others opportunities to be responsible for leading specific safety practices within your team or establish a rotating schedule of safety officers on your team so that everyone has the opportunity to lead in safety. 

If you're trying to raise awareness about safety and have an engaged group who want to bring forward their concern and feedback, you need to start talking about safety informally and, as a leader instilling leadership in others, you need to act and react in ways that support your safety practices and principles. Taking on the attitude that it's not something that you have to do, but rather, it's something you want to do can help you and your team members commit to practicing safe behaviours.

The University of Alberta is committed to the safety, health and well-being of our faculty, staff and students. Every day, we advance this commitment to safety through the Culture of Care.

About Jon

Dr. Jonathan (Jon) Veinot is professor and associate chair (Research) in the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science with the College of Natural and Applied Sciences at the University of Alberta. He also serves as an associate editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry journals Nanoscale and Nanoscale Advances

He established and is the Canadian director of the Alberta-Technical University of Munich International Graduate for Hybrid Functional Materials (ATUMS) that is supported by the NSERC CREATE and DFG IRTG programs as well as Alberta Innovates. He is also president/co-founder/CTO of Applied Quantum Materials Inc.; a start-up venture that aims to commercialize intellectual property developed in his academic labs and provides employment opportunities for highly qualified personnel from the University of Alberta and surrounding academic institutions.

Find Dr. Veinot on ORCID.