K-16 Science Laboratory Safety

Linda M. Stroud, Ph.D.

(Download printer-friendly pdf version)




Linda M. Stroud, Ph.D.; NRCC-CHO
Manager of Environmental Safety and Health Certification                 
Advanced Safety Certification
OSHA General Industry Outreach Trainer
Bloodborne Pathogen Instructor Certification
President, Science & Safety Consulting Services, Inc.
NSTA Safety Advisory Board Chair – 2009-2010
www.sciencesafetyconsulting.com

Frequently, it is viewed that “Laboratory Safety” applies only to chemistry classes. Safety in the science laboratory applies to ALL science classes in K-16 public, charter and private schools as well as colleges and universities.
School safety—thoughts of “Guns, Knives and Intruders” flash through school administrators’ and the public’s minds. School safety includes much more, namely the science laboratory. Students drop things, slip, bump into equipment and make errors in judgment. It is a fact of life. Administrators and teachers make errors in judgment as well. Laboratory investigations and demonstrations sometimes simply go awry. An accident is considered unavoidable or inevitable by law. An accident cannot be foreseen or prevented by exercise of reasonable precautions. Most of the so-called lab “accidents” are “incidents” in our schools.” However, just because laboratory accidents happen does not mean that laboratory injury is either inevitable or unavoidable. If your school implements the proper training and the correct protocols and follows them, the laboratory experience can be both safer and more rewarding.

The purpose of the science program is to introduce and to instruct the student in the processes of science inquiry and investigation. Laboratories and classrooms are the focal points of this instruction. Often these areas involve potential hazards and requires following established standard operating procedures (SOPs) to ensure the increased safety of students and teachers alike. For this reason, it is in the teacher's best intereats and imperative that safety be an integral part of the planning, preparation and implementation of any science program. Moral, ethical, social, professional and legal concerns demand you ensure that your school science laboratories are as safe as possible. It is simply not acceptable to take any unnecessary risks with the health and well-being of students and staff. Science IS–Inquiry…Safely.®

Paracelsus, the 15th century alchemist, said that all chemicals are toxic; it is the dosage that determines it’s toxicity. Even water can be toxic. A California woman died of water poisoning (hyponatremia or hyperhydration) as a result of drinking an inordinate amount of water too quickly for a radio contest. All chemicals have associated hazards or hazard potentials. A hazard potential is defined as the probability that a toxic exposure will occur upon exposure to a specific chemical. Environmental variables, route of entry, concentration of exposure, physical properties, chemical properties, physiological state, toxicity and other factors affect the degree of hazard of a chemical. These hazards cannot be removed from chemicals; however, their risks can be minimized. Many teachers believe the chemicals they use in science laboratories are harmless because they are household chemicals. Household chemicals are also hazardous.


Safety Training. Two College Methods Professors attended this weeklong safety facilitators training class.

During 2002-2007, a total of 43,766 chemical incidents were reported to the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) which conducts national public health surveillance of chemical incidents. Of these, 423 occurred in elementary and secondary schools. School-related events most often resulted from human error (62%) (e.g., improper and unsafe chemical storage, improper use of materials or equipment), equipment failure (17%) (e.g., broken hoses, valves, or pipes), or intentional acts (17%) (e.g., using homemade chemical bombs [bottle bombs] or 2-chloroacetophenone [i.e., mace or pepper spray pranks]). Among the 423 chemical incidents in elementary and secondary schools, 31% resulted in at least one acute injury and 52% resulted in an evacuation. Of the 74 incidents caused by intentional acts, 43% were associated with an injury. A total of 895 persons were injured in the 423 school-related incidents. Although no fatal injuries occurred, 11 persons were admitted to a hospital.1 The National Safety Council estimates 5000 safety related accidents occur in our schools annually. Obviously, many of these accidents are not reported to anyone.

Teachers and Students
Teachers are the front line in safety. It is their responsibility to see that safety protocols are carried out and to make students aware of any potential hazards they may encounter. It is through the teacher that the practices of Science IS - Inquiry…Safely® become second nature. It is through the teaching process that the understanding of the need for caution and preparation become manifest. Administrators must provide teachers the support and authority to ensure a safer science laboratory program. Students must be offered the benefit of the teacher’s knowledge and experience in dealing with the potential hazards of any investigation, thereby giving students the tools they need to safely pursue their lines of inquiry. Knowledge and preparation are the keys to avoiding accidents and controlling the hazards present in the laboratory.


Author providing Science Safety Training for Wake County Science Teachers

Teachers themselves may be legally liable for student injuries suffered as a result of a laboratory investigation gone awry. Courts have determined that if teachers fail to properly supervise or instruct a class in proper safety precautions, the responsibility for any injuries incurred could fall on the teacher. The teacher is responsible for providing a duty of care to the student. For this reason, it is and in the teacher’s self-interest and imperative that the staff be well trained in the proper procedures and philosophy of an effective health and safety program. Teachers must always weigh the educational value versus hazards / risks in deciding what type of laboratory investigations to conduct. The laboratory investigation must be appropriate for the facility and age / maturity level of the students.

Safety Training
Safety training is required for all science teachers. Safety training has often been relegated to an as needed, case-by-case reaction to specific events and circumstances, without any clearly defined set of protocols to ensure safety in all phases of the inquiry process. The OSHA Laboratory Standard requires training for novice teachers and new job assignments before reporting for duty. It is imperative for science education departments to include safety training in science methods courses not only for the safety of student or pre-service teachers but from a liability standpoint of the college / university. Safety updates are required for veteran teachers on an as-need basis. School systems often mandate safety training for teachers after a student or teacher has experienced a serious injury such as being burned. In an Ohio school, a flash fire occurred when a flame test using methanol went awry burning two students. The flash fire was over before the sprinklers in the laboratory were activated. No one was wearing personal protective equipment. Students were gathered around the teacher’s demonstration desk to observe the demonstration. Ohio required safety training for all K-12 teachers the following Saturday after the injuries occurred. “After the fact” is too late for the injured teacher or student even though it may prevent additional injuries. It is necessary to move away from this ad hoc attitude to a mind set where safety considerations are as important a part of the science laboratory as the investigations and content themselves. An out-of-court settlement awarded these two students $18.95 million for their injuries. What would $18.95 million do for your school system? The comments posted by the general public reading the article on the internet about the teacher were quite derogatory. Also, think of the responsibility the teacher felt for having seriously maimed two students for life.

1. (WA Wattigney, MStat, MF Orr, MS, GD Williamson, PhD, Div of Health Studies, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; S Everett Jones, PhD, JD, Division of Adolescent and School Health, CDC.) Hazardous Chemical Incidents In Schools---United States 2002-2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Weekly, November 7, 2008 / 57(44):1197-1200. CDC

Current Issue | Archives | NCSTA


The Science Reflector
Newsletter of the North Carolina Science Teachers Association
P.O. Box 33478, Raleigh, NC 27636
Elizabeth Snoke Harris, Editor