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Safer Breakerspaces

 

Breakerspaces are areas where students demolish, repurpose, fix, or disassemble appliances, electronics, toys, and other devices to learn how they work, what components were used to create them, and how they were designed. Like any type of construction or demolition work, safety preparation is absolutely critical. When preparing a breakerspace activity, teachers should consider the following safety guidelines.

Personal protective equipment

Be aware of personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and appropriate use of them (e.g., safety glasses or goggles for the eyes and work gloves to protect the hands). Always do a hazard analysis and risk assessment and take appropriate safety action before starting a hands-on activity. If the breakerspace activity requires the use of a screw driver, for example, a hazard could be that the end of the hand tool is sharp. The risk is the potential for cutting or puncturing the skin or eyes. The appropriate safety action would be the use of safety glasses or goggles and work gloves when using a screw driver.

Working with hand tools

When using hand tools,

• inspect tools before using them (e.g., check for cracked handles on hammers and screwdrivers);
• use the right tool for the right job;
• ensure materials are secure so they don’t slip (e.g., use clamps or a vise when appropriate);
• use caution when handling tools to help prevent injuries (e.g., cuts, impalement);
• store and secure tools under lock and key after using them; and
• remove any flammable substances when working with iron or steel hand tools.

Assess hazards and determine risks of materials and equipment

When working with equipment and materials, teachers should be mindful of the following safety considerations.

• Remove the plug or batteries after using electrical equipment.
• Electronic equipment could cause electrical shock. Any electrical device with an AC>DC switch mode (e.g., computers, power supplies) stores about 200 V on its input capacitors and can retain high voltage for a length of time. If the device hasn’t been plugged in for at least several weeks, it should be safer to use. But always use a multimeter to test the voltage on the high-voltage capacitors to be certain.
• Do not work with wet hands or clothing.
• Do not work on electronic devices with any metallic jewelry on your hands.
• Do not use metal and plastic toys and electronic equipment containing lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, bromine, and PVC plastic.
• Be aware of sharp objects, choking hazards, and projectiles.
• Materials and equipment with sharp metal or glass edges can cause cuts and infections.
• Springs and elastics can become airborne and cause injuries.
• Materials and equipment with sharp points or prongs (e.g., wires and nails) can cause cut or stab wounds.
• Hot glue guns and soldering irons can burn the skin.
• Batteries contain hazardous corrosive chemicals.
• Toys or appliances containing screens contain chemicals that hazardous and should not be used.
• Properly dispose of or store materials upon completing the activity.
• Prohibit students form eating food when working in a breakerspace.
• Everyone in the lab should wash their hands to reduce risk of cross contamination.
• Always wash hands with soap and water upon completing the activities.

Safety training

Students need to have training on all of the safety issues discussed in this article and successfully complete a safety assessment before partaking in breakerspace activities.

Supervision

Under “duty or standard of care,” teachers need to continually supervise students engaged in breakerspace activities. This is to ensure that behavioral expectations are being followed and allows teachers to be prepared for safety issues.

Conclusion

Breakerspaces require special attention to safety preparation on the part of both teachers and students. Ongoing teacher review of safety and direct supervision of student behavior are necessary for a safer breakerspace experience.

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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7 Comments

  1. Karen
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone have a good source of information to teach us which items might have the heavy metals and such – or is it assumed that all electronics are likely to have those? I have students who want to dismantle electronic parts to make art.

    • Karen
      Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much for those specifics.

  2. James Kaufman
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    The ANSI Z-87.1 standard for Eye and Face Protection speaks to the use of both safety glasses with and without side shields. Safety glasses without side shields are only appropriate for “glare”. Therefore, in all laboratory/STEM activities where impact protection is needed, we must specify “safety glasses with side shields”.

    James A. Kaufman, Ph.D.
    President/CEO
    Laboratory Safety Institute
    Member of the ANSI Z-87.1 committee

  3. Dr. Ken
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s response to Karen’s comment on items with heavy metals in Breakerspaces:

    Karen – that is an important question! Toxic heavy metals can be found in a range of electronic and other electrical items. A good resource is an article titled “What IT pros should know about exposure to hazardous materials.” It can be found at https://www.techrepublic.com/blog/data-center/what-it-pros-should-know-about-exposure-to-hazardous-materials/. It begins by stating the following: “From circuit boards to monitors to batteries to cables, toxic substances pose a very real threat to those who work with computer equipment.” It not only notes equipment which may contain hazardous heavy metals, but it also notes the history on appropriate regulatory actions and disposal issues.
    Older electronics, toys, etc. from the 50s – 70s especially provide exposure to toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury in their printed circuit boards and more. Even today, there are still electronics manufacturers such as the US and China using lead solders. Bottomline, to reduce potential exposure to these toxic heavy metals, it would be wiser/safer to try and secure relatively newer equipment than equipment that is several decades older.
    If you plan on having students “break apart” electronic gear, again, it would be prudent to have them wear work gloves, along with other PPE noted in the March commentary titled “Safer Breakerspaces.” Wear protective gloves and clean the area with a damp rag when finished before the end of class. Dispose of rags appropriately. Your school facilities manager, town health director or sanitation officer may offer advice on proper disposal in your town. Planning ahead for proper disposal of equipment parts would also be prudent. Some items that are easily disposed of intact, become very expensive toxic waste once demolished Wash hands thoroughly after finishing work, and before eating. Don’t eat or drink while handling electronic components.
    Also, remember to keep the area well-ventilated. This is especially necessary if there is any kind of soldering being done. The International Technology and Engineering Educators Association or ITEEA has a useful soldering safety article which addresses ventilation issue and can be found at: https://www.iteea.org/Publications/Journals/TET/TETFeb18/SaferSoldering.aspx.
    As you can see, there are a lot of issues which need to be addressed. As I noted in the commentary, always do a hazard analysis and risk assessment and take appropriate safety action before starting a hands-on activity in breakerspaces.
    I hope this is helpful.

    Dr. Ken

  4. Dr. Ken
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s response to Dr. Kaufman’s comment on eye protection –

    Good point Jim – thanks for mentioning it! Appreciated.

    Dr. Ken

  5. Debra Shapiro
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Coming soon in the April 2018 issue of NSTA Reports: “Building STEM Knowledge in a Breakerspace.” NSTA members can read it online at the NSTA Reports Archive page

  6. Debra Shapiro
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    “Building STEM Knowledge in a Breakerspace” now appears at http://nstacommunities.org/blog/2018/04/06/building-stem-knowledge-in-a-breakerspace

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