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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Profiles in Safety: Burgers, Potato Salad, and Safety

safety groupSandra McFarland, business manager of the Materials Sciences Division, had the brainstorm: the annual division BBQ should have entertainment with a safety theme. She was inspired, she says, by Saturday Night Live: “Comedy relaxes. It’s a non-formal way of bringing information, and people’s attitudes and beliefs can change.” Because the division has a disproportional amount of young people—about 90% are students and post-docs—she figured comedy would be a sure-fire way to capture their attention. “If we’ve caught 10% of them, you’ve done a lot,” she says. So she assigned a couple people to be in charge of entertainment while she worked on prizes, such as Peet’s coffee cards and home emergency kits.

Alice Muller-Egan, an administrative assistant by day, but with years of theater and playwriting experience, was in charge of the entertainment at the September BBQ. She and Rick Kelly, the Division’s EH&S Manager, warmed up the crowd with banter on how to apply the five steps of ISM (Integrated Safety Management) when going out a date. In one sketch, she played the host of a music program interviewing a guest with a new album, “Rick Kelly Sing Safety Songs for Work and Home.” Songs included “Safety Dance,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” (both apparently about the importance of wearing goggles) and “I’m Gonna ISM My Baby,” (how to be safe when going out on a date). Says Muller-Egan: “There was relevant information in there, but also things that were just clearly funny. It’s education through humor. People tell me they enjoyed it.”

After the warm-up acts came the big event, an event Kelly calls “an American Idol for safety:” “So You Think You Can Impress Rick Kelly.” Five volunteers were recruited to match wits with Kelly on safety trivia. Participants took turns answering and were eliminated when they got one wrong. The questions started easy. After a couple rounds, they started getting harder: “What new fibrous nanomaterial is likely to cause the same health effects as asbestos?” (Actually, Kelly was disappointed that the person did not know the answer—carbon nanotubes—as it’s part of the nanosafety class.) The final question, also missed, had to do with a 1983 Supreme Court decision on benzene exposure. “The safety aspect was more of a success that I thought it would be,” Kelly says.

“I wanted to take more of a softer, nicer approach to safety,” says McFarland. “It’s the same material, but presented in a humorous way.” The result? “It was a good two hours. People lasted. They say it was effective.” It may not be easy to impress Rick Kelly, but trying to can be fun—and educational.

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