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Making a Checklist for Safer Labs

A lab safety checklist can serve as a map to help science teachers navigate through safer waters.

The list not only makes labs safer for students but also fulfills part of the teacher’s legal responsibility for inspecting, securing, and maintaining a safer learning space. For school districts regulated under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the list needs to reflect fundamental elements of the Laboratory Standard and Hazard Communication Standard. Non-OSHA regulated school districts need to incorporate state and local safety regulations for academic labs into their lists. OSHA’s webpage contains safety and health standards and regulations specific to each state.

The following checklist addresses most—but not all—situations in K–12 science laboratories, but it can be tailored to meet the needs of individual laboratories.

Environmental health and safety

• Is there an active environmental health and safety program (e.g., chemical hygiene plan) addressing management of biological, chemical, and physical hazards specific to your work-site?

• Is there a person designated for the implementation and enforcement of the safety program (e.g., chemical hygiene officer)?

• Is there a department or school safety committee composed of employees and employers that meet regularly and write reports on their activities?

• Is there a process for handling employee complaints regarding environmental health and safety issues? To give an example, employees can submit a reporting form to their supervisors to address safety issues. Employees can also file a confidential complaint with OSHA to have their workplace inspected.

Personal protective equipment

• Is there a process to determine whether activities contain hazards requiring the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE (e.g., head, eye, face, hand, or foot protection)? This process involves three steps: hazards analysis, risks assessment, and safety action. Once risks are assessed after the hazards analysis, the safety action would determine which types of PPE are required for a safer activity.

• If hazards are found, are employers, employees, and students using the proper PPE?

• Are indirectly vented chemical splash goggles worn where there is a danger of flying particles or corrosive materials?

• Are safety glasses worn where there are solids hazards such as projectiles and meter sticks?

• Are employees and students who have glasses or contacts required to wear approved safety glasses, protective goggles, or use other precautionary procedures such as eliminating the use of contacts.

• Are there gloves, aprons, shields, or other protection for employees and students to protect themselves against hazards such as corrosive liquids, sharp objects, and chemicals?

• Is all protective equipment well maintained and ready for use?

• Are there eye wash facilities and a drench shower within the work areas that contain hazardous chemicals or biologicals?

• Are food and beverages consumed in areas where there is no exposure to hazards?

Flammable and combustible materials

• Are approved containers and tanks used for storing and handling flammable and combustible liquids? Containers or tanks for such storage or handling must meet OSHA’s Flammable Liquid standard and have labeling noting that it meets the standard.

• Do storage rooms for flammable and combustible liquids have explosion-proof lights and mechanical or gravity ventilation?

• Are fire extinguishers for combustible; liquid, gas, or grease; and electrical equipment fires placed in the appropriate areas?

• For electrical equipment fires:

  • are appropriate fire extinguishers mounted within 75 ft. (23 m) of outdoor areas containing flammable liquids and within 10 ft. (3 m) of indoor storage areas?
  • are extinguishers free from obstructions or blockage?
  • are all extinguishers serviced, maintained, and tagged each year?
  • are all extinguishers full and in their designated places?

Working surfaces

• Are all work-sites clean, sanitary, and orderly?

• Are work surfaces slip-resistant?

• Are all spilled hazardous materials or liquids, including blood and other potentially infectious materials, cleaned up immediately according to proper procedures?

• Is all regulated waste, as defined in the OSHA bloodborne pathogens standard (1910.1030), discarded per federal, state, and local regulations?

• Are aisles and passageways kept clear?

Hazard communication

• Is there a current inventory of hazardous substances in your workplace?

• Is there a written hazard communication program dealing with safety data sheets (SDSs), labeling, storage, disposal, and employee training?

• Is each container (i.e., vats, bottles, storage tanks) for a hazardous substance labeled with product identity and hazard warning information?

• Is an SDS readily available for each hazardous substance at the work-site?

• Is there an annual employee training program for hazardous substances?

• Does this program:

  •  explain what an SDS is, and how to use and obtain one?
  • include SDS contents for each hazardous substance or class of substances?
  • explain “Right to Understand?”—that is, understand how to work with hazardous chemicals in a safer way.
  • identify where an employee can see the written hazards communication program and where hazardous substances are present in their work areas?
  • note the physical and health hazards of substances in the work areas and specific protective measures?
  • provide details of the hazard communication program, including how to use the labeling system and SDSs?

• Are employees trained to:

  • recognize tasks that might result in occupational exposure? Occupational exposure refers to anticipated bodily contact with chemical hazards and toxic substances.
  • use engineering controls, PPE, and to know their limitations?
  • obtain information on the types, selection, proper use, location, removal, handling, decontamination, and disposal of PPE?
  • know who to contact and what to do in an emergency?

Meeting OSHA’s Laboratory and Hazard Communication standards

• Are there safety engineering and administrative controls, including standard operating procedures?

• Are there criteria (e.g., proper housekeeping) for implementing and inspecting specific controls?

• Is there annual testing and certification of fume hoods?

• Is there access to information and training requirements?

• Are there laboratory operations that require approval of the employer or chemical hygiene officer? For example, the use of a new hazardous chemical might require the pre-approval of the chemical hygiene officer.

• Are there provisions for medical consultation and exams?

• Is there a designated chemical hygiene plan?

• Is there a chemical hygiene officer?

In the end

A good place to start a safety inspection is by answering the questions on the checklist, which provides a viable safety assessment and improves safety in the learning environment.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at safesci@sbcglobal.net, or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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2 Comments

  1. Katelyn
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I found this post to be extremely helpful as I embark on my first year of teaching in a science classroom. This checklist outlines the most specific of instances, some of which you might not even think of that could be potentially hazardous. I will be sure to run through this checklist as I plan out my laboratory exercises for this upcoming school year.

  2. Dr. Ken
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to Katelyn’s Comment:

    Katelyn – Fantastic! Thank you for the kind words. Unfortunately, most new science teachers have not had safety training and are literally placed in a lab to figure it out on their own. Needless to say, this is not a good situation for the the teacher, the school and the students.

    I am pleased you have taken the initiative to join the NSTA Safety Blog and found this blog commentary helpful for your situation. Please don’t hesitate to submit any safety related questions you might have in the future to the blog. I am sure there are many others in your situation who are in need of this type of information. You will be helping not only yourself but many other colleagues new to the field.

    Also follow me five days a weeks on Twitter@drroysafersci for up-to-date safety information on a variety of topics.

    Have a safer day!

    Dr. Ken

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