Effective Campus-Safety Programs: Adapting to a Unique Community

Environmental health and safety (EHS) programs typically comprise several major disciplines: laboratory safety, occupational health and safety, environmental compliance, emergency management and fire safety. While no two institutions of higher education are alike, EHS departments are more similar than different: they employ common strategies to protect the university community.

Regardless of how offices are structured or who they report to within an organization, each function is typically arranged around primary disciplines and staffed by one or more subject-matter experts. EHS professionals are typically certified in their field (for example, Certified Biological Safety Professional, Certified Hazardous Materials Manager). Recently, a greater number of colleges and universities have sought EHS professionals with post-graduate degrees.

The foundation of all EHS programs is the application of federal, state and local codes and regulations to the various activities conducted at the university. The application of codes and regulations in a diverse environment typical of most institutions of higher education is based on three functions.

Policy, procedures and manuals – These outline the roles and responsibilities of those responsible for ensuring compliance with safety regulations as well as those subject to a particular requirement.

Safety manuals and policies can translate the cryptic language of codes and regulations into procedures a layperson can understand and apply. They assign accountability and define the administrative processes for supporting and implementing safety standards across a diverse organization.

All programs prescribe safety precautions in a hierarchical order of reliability:

  1. Eliminate hazards through engineer controls.
  2. Establish administrative procedures that mitigate the potential for injury.
  3. Prescribe personal protective equipment to protect employees from hazards.

Training and public outreach – The success of EHS programs is contingent upon the competency and performance of the university community. Training and public outreach are necessary to educate community members on their responsibilities as researchers, trades persons, staff and faculty.

Training programs are often tailored to a particular audience. For example, laboratory safety training may be presented in three different formats for researchers, students and trades persons based on their unique work activities in laboratories.

Training is provided by a combination of EHS staff, third-party contractors and supervisors. Examples of safety training topics include fire extinguisher use, laser safety, working with radioactive materials, handling research animals, chainsaw safety and hearing conservation.

Inspections of institutional activities to improve compliance – Periodic inspections are conducted by EHS staff to evaluate workspace conditions, mechanical systems such as fire-suppression systems and the performance of employees responsible for safety.

Inspections provide metrics are used to identify gaps in EHS training programs, deficiencies in mechanical systems, attainment of compliance and trends in safety programs. Metrics are also essential to demonstrating the value of EHS programs and validating requests for additional resources.

Most EHS offices inspect laboratories, art studios, facilities-management work areas, residence halls, buildings for fire-safety issues, sites of accidents, hot work locations and major events that have temporary structures (e.g., tents, stages or amusement devices).


The most common challenge to EHS programs is workload and staffing. The scope of responsibility for an EHS office to develop, train, inspect and continuously improve safety programs coupled with the steady growth of campuses and employee populations often demands more than most offices can deliver. Metrics can be used to justify increases in personnel or resources to reach and maintain compliance. In some instances, formulas that use building square footage or populations have been developed to justify and forecast the need for additional personnel.

Changes in code can have tremendous impacts on the structure and execution of EHS programs. For example, proposed change to the 2013 edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, will have budget and personnel implications. The recent adoption of the “Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration required significant changes to the university’s chemical inventory and right-to-know programs.

Maintaining records of EHS inspections, training and program documents can be overwhelming. Many EHS offices utilize a database to manage records, facilitate reporting and improve version control of EHS manuals and policies. Many universities are exploring the use of tablets and handheld devices to increase efficiency and recordkeeping in the field; however, developing new IT processes requires a significant investment in hardware and time.

Keys to Success

In essence, colleges and universities are small communities with complex activities, such as research, student housing, large public events and a unique blend of politics and bureaucracy. Anyone who works in higher education will attest to its unique environment. It's a dynamic and rewarding environment for ambitious safety professionals, but to be successful, you must adapt to the circumstances:

  • Build a customer service-oriented EHS team – Focus on partnership and mutual commitment to finding practical solutions to safety and compliance issues is a must. EHS programs are more successful if staff develop solid working relationships with the community. Staff should strive to support university activities rather than police employees. 
  • Involve stakeholders in safety-program development – Include community members in the development of university policies and application of codes and regulations. Because many activities at colleges and universities depend on multiple stakeholders and efficient communication, coordinating the implementation of safety programs must begin at the design stage.
  • Understand the diverse nature of university campuses – Adapt programs to the university's various environments. Be prepared to use different strategies to maintain compliance based on an audience's activities, location and idiosyncrasies.
  • Understand the political and business process of the organization – Respect and observe the political nuances and organizational dynamics unique to the institution. Learn how to work effectively within the organization and leverage it to your advantage.

Ideally, the product of these efforts is the development of a culture of safety that's fostered by supportive EHS professionals who appreciate the unique circumstances of a diverse population and range of activities. Collaboration and mutual respect are cornerstones of effective EHS programs.

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