UT Austin's Safety Organization Finds New Ways to Continue Initiatives During COVID-19 Pandemic

University of Texas, Austin, maintains momentum on initiatives to educate peers about lab safety.
University of Texas Austin Chemical Safety Chapter
Members of the Chemistry Student Safety Organization at the University of Texas, Austin, take a virtual group photo. Top row (left to right): Mason L Valentine, Juliette W Strasser, Jonathan R Thompson. Middle row (left to right): Adrian Rylski, Kanchan Aggarwal, Calla M McCulley. Bottom row (left to right): Sydney Povilaitis, Audrey G Fikes.

What have you done to ensure that your chapter stays together during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have Zoom meetings once a week or every other week. We’ve been working on some remote projects and also on increasing our social media presence. Even though we’re not on campus to hold initiatives, we’re trying to get the word out about our chapter (since we’re relatively new) so that once we get back we can hopefully have increased engagement.

Have you done any virtual activities in place of in-person ones?

One of our initiatives has been introducing a safety slide before department seminars. Because we haven't been able to do in-person seminars, we’ve been distributing  a resource called Safety Moment Monday—a brief set of Safety Minute slides to the department. The slides are geared toward being at home and not necessarily just safety topics that apply to the lab. We’re hoping that people are reading and enjoying. We also recently published the first volume of our newsletter, CSSO Communications, which we plan to  publish in the fall and spring semesters. Our department chair let us know that she really appreciated it. We also have a weeklong socially distanced scavenger hunt planned on our social media channels. People have to tag us in what they find. The items include things like a can of Lysol, a house with certain numbers in the address, and even a link to our Anonymous Reporting page on our website. We’re hoping that this helps increase our social media engagement and gets people excited about participating and possibly winning a prize.

Have you thought about what you’ll do if your campus remains closed in the fall?

Even if our campus remains closed, we may be back in our labs doing research activities. We will of course maintain the chapter via Zoom to avoid large, in-person meetings, but hopefully we can focus on some on-campus initiatives. For example, we are working on publicizing the Anonymous Reporting section of our website. To do so, we want to distribute stickers or magnets among the lab members with the Anonymous Reporting information on them.

We will also continue encouraging people to report near miss-situations so that we can have some data to work with. In addition, we hope to start publicizing ACS Seminars via Zoom and make them available for any department members who are interested.

We are currently planning a virtual meeting with other student safety groups at different universities, where we will share our successful (and not so successful) initiatives, plans for the future, and other strategies in the hope of learning more and starting to build a safety network. We intend to continue these meetings on a semiregular basis to learn more about other groups and help improve our initiatives as well.

How is your faculty advisor helping you?

UT faculty have been very supportive of our Safety Minute Monday initiative. The constant support in the form of feedback and affirmative e-mails has been encouraging and helpful in moving us forward, especially while we’re adapting during these challenging times.

What advice would you give chapters who are struggling to keep their clubs active and engaged?

Focus on some short-term initiatives that can easily be done at home, such as writing e-mail-based projects like a Safety Minute e-mail or a newsletter. It’s also fun to do some social media projects, like having different club members take over the Instagram account and post what they’re doing. A little bit of a pivot is necessary because it’s impossible to keep things exactly the same as they were before when you are working from home. However, with a little bit of creativity it’s definitely possible to keep people engaged until we’re able to be back on campus!