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University Chemistry Laboratories: Is Your Key Control Strong Enough?

Chemistry laboratories have good reason to keep stock chemicals under lock and key — especially when working with dual-use chemicals. These chemical compounds have legitimate scientific applications, but they can also be used for criminal purposes, such as illicit drug creation and chemical warfare.

With these liability risks, it’s imperative for labs to employ adequate key control measures to prevent dual-use chemicals from falling into the wrong hands.

Unfortunately, they don’t always secure the chemicals as tightly as they should. In recent years, several chemical thefts have made headlines:

  1. Police issued a warning to the community when a vial of a deadly chemical went missing from a University of Montana lab. The director of biochemistry explained that anyone who works in the labs has a facility key, allowing them to access the entire building 24/7. Police later discovered that a student with approved access to the lab had taken the substance without authorization.
  2. A former Texas Tech student was accused of stealing equipment, chemicals and books worth more than $20,000 from the school’s science building. The electronic locks and card readers installed on the doors of the lab where the thefts occurred weren't working at the time of the incident.
  3. At a community college in Pittsburgh, the door to a lab was found propped open, and an inventory check revealed that chemicals had been stolen.
  4. A University of Saskatchewan student was suspended for having in his home chemicals stolen from a university lab.
  5. Two students of the Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music stole a master key from a chemistry professor's key ring. They then broke into a lab, from which they'd planned to steal chemicals and other lab equipment before being caught by a security guard.

A handbook on lab safety precautions even suggests that criminals have posed as university students convincingly enough to gain access to lab stock rooms.

These stories reveal the need for better access controls for chemicals. So what can you do to improve security in your lab?

Address Key Control Problems

There is a manageable solution for addressing key control problems. For one, you should keep all keys in a single area, which reduces the chance of them being lost or stolen. Also make sure keys are secured properly. Instead of hanging keys on a pegboard, secure them in an electronic drawer or locker panel that physically locks down key tags.

To keep track of who is using keys, you can implement biometric authentication protocol, making it nearly impossible for a criminal to pose as authorized personnel. For instance, KeyTrak Guardian electronic key control systems utilize biometric fingerprint readers to ensure the integrity of the audit trail, so you know exactly which person signed into the system and which keys they accessed.

Some key control systems — including KeyTrak Guardian — even give you the option to be immediately notified by text or email if an employee doesn’t return a key by a certain time or if an unauthorized person attempts to break in to the system.

By taking adequate measures to protect the areas in which dual-use chemicals are stored, you can protect your lab from theft and maybe even save some lives as well.

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