On January 2, 2014, a involving a fire injured students at Beacon High School in Manhattan (NYC). An article in The New York Times reported that two students were burned as a result of a fireball of methanol vapor created by a flame test demonstration, typically called the Rainbow. The students were sent to the hospital for medical care. This terrible accident adds to the list of safety incidents resulting from the same demonstration over the past few years.
It is absolutely tragic when students and/or school staff are injured as the result of a serious safety incident. Survivors live their lives with vivid memories and emotional and/or physical scars. In response to these accidents, there have been calls to cease hands-on science activities. This is a knee-jerk response and myopic vision. Think about it! Do we stop using cars on the highways because of automobile accidents? Do we stop flying in the sky because there have been airplane accidents? Obviously the answer to these questions is “no!” What we do is to try and make science labs SAFER; we need to help reduce or prevent future accidents by improving technology, altering human behavior, increasing safety training, and more.
Looking back at the recent lab incident and other laboratory accidents that have occurred in our schools, what is the lesson to be learned? How can we make it SAFER and how can we help reduce or prevent future accidents? Here are a few thoughts to consider and help us move in a SAFER direction while continuing the doing of science—the best way students learn it:
- Legal Safety Standards: There are legal safety standards which employers (boards of education) are required to follow. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires schools under its jurisdiction with laboratories to provide ongoing employee training, appropriate engineering controls, updated administrative procedures, effective personal protective equipment, progressive discipline policies, and more under programs such as the Hazard Communications Program (29CFR 1910.1200) and the Laboratory Standard (29CFR 1910.1450). The purpose of these programs/standards is to create and maintain a safer working environment for employees, including science teachers. There are National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire safety standards which are adopted by state legislatures and applied to school employers relative to laboratory occupancy loads, fire suppression equipment, hazardous chemical storage, inspections, and so forth. Employers have a legal and moral obligation to address these safety standards, especially in areas like science laboratories that deal with chemical, biological, and physical hazards.
- Professional Best Safety Practices: Professions like education have safety standards that help guide science teachers to contribute to a safer working environment for themselves and their students. For example, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) provides a safety portal with resources, journals with monthly safety columns that deal with current safety issues (The Science Teacher’s “Safer Science” and Science Scope’s “Scope on Safety”), safety seminars at regional and national conferences, safety webinars, books on laboratory safety, and much more.
- Training: Safety is a constantly changing landscape of which professionals like science teachers need to be aware. Unfortunately, much more needs to be done at the tertiary teacher preparatory level in this area. Few colleges and universities address pre-service safety training to the level needed. Employers also need to do more to provide ongoing safety training—especially for science laboratory employees. Training should extend beyond school employees. Students must have safety training before they pick up a test tube or light a burner in the lab. They also need to sign a safety acknowledgement form recognizing that the lab can be a dangerous place. In order to make it safer, safety protocols must be practiced and followed.
- Resources: The Internet can be a life changer, if not a life saver! There are a large number of safety resources online for science teachers. As part of their professional responsibilities, science teachers need to prepare properly prior to doing laboratory experiments and demonstrations. There are government safety websites, NSTA blogs, listservs, and much more available. But, teachers should be given time to review them. Schools must provide professional development time and training to make use of these resources.
- Supervision: According to OSHA and school district evaluation programs, employees require supervision. Safety needs to be a critical piece which is addressed on a regular basis. There must also be enforcement of all safety standards to reduce the frequency of incidents and make it a safer place to work and learn.
- Equipment: Along with training there are legal safety standards and professional best practices that require access, appropriate use, and inspection and repair/replacement of safety equipment specific to laboratories (e.g. chemical splash goggles, gloves, aprons, etc.) Also required are appropriate ventilation systems, fume hoods, fire extinguishers, etc.
- Inspections: Science labs should be inspected on a regular basis to help the science teacher make sure all things are operating and functioning safety-wise. Chemical hygiene officers, school district safety compliance officers, insurance carrier inspectors, the local fire marshal, commercial safety compliance inspectors, and OSHA compliance officers—these are just a few examples of people who are committed to safety and who can help science teachers make sure their labs are up to or surpass safety standards.
- Professional Preparation/Certification: Few states now require specific professional/academic preparation standards for each area of science. The bar has been lowered and we all are paying for it. Often “science” certified teachers are assigned classes in areas they have had little to no academic preparation in or experience in teaching. Legislators need to re-examine this whole issue and get back on track. Unlike other areas such as English and mathematics, we need to require specialized certificates in each of the many science education areas—physics, chemistry, biology, etc.
Re-occurring safety incidents and serious injuries are a symptom that the system is not functioning properly. Will all of these suggestions prevent safety accidents or incidents from occurring? Maybe not, but they would dramatically reduce their frequency and make for a much safer science lab experience for our children and our science teachers.
Dr. Ken Roy
Chief Science Safety Compliance Consultant/Author/Columnist, National Science Teachers Association