It is the legal and professional obligation of all school personnel to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff. Administrators, staff and students are responsible for developing and following safety protocols and regulations in the science laboratory. Each must maintain a concerted effort to avoid the apathetic and laissez-faire attitudes which are a major cause of accidents in the laboratory. Effective laboratory safety is not possible without the continued education and commitment of all stakeholders involved in learning and experimentation in the scientific environment. The ability of students to solve problems using science inquiry is a vital step in the intellectual development of future educators, medical and science professionals and citizens in general. There is significantly more involved in ensuring science safety than merely presenting a set of rules and regulations to the class. Motivation, dedication and understanding of the “whys of safety” are essential in the development of a safe and effective school laboratory program.1
Legal issues of school laboratory safety are primarily determined by laws, codes, regulations and professional standards.
Occupational Safety and Health Act
When Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, it helped clarify and recognize many health and safety concerns. The purpose of OSHA is to ensure that employers provide a safe and healthy working environment for employees, including all teachers—public, charter and private. Although OSHA covers employees but not students, prudent school personnel will provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students by following federal, state and local health and safety codes / regulations.
Currently, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has approved state plans for 24 states and two territories. The state plan must be equal to or more stringent than the Federal OSHA Plan. Many OSH State-Plan states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and others) cover private and public sector employers /employees as required by Federal OSHA. North Carolina adopted the federal OSHA regulations as is except, North Carolina enacted more stringent permissible chemical exposure levels for employees. In addition, professional standards will always apply in terms of liability if an accident occurs.
There are over 100 OSHA standards that are applicable to K-16 schools – most requiring professional development for employees. Professional development is required before an employee reports to duty rather than after an accident occurs. While “after the accident” professional development may prevent future accidents, it does nothing to prevent accidents that have occurred or provide aid in liability protection for employers or employees. Key OSHA standards that effect schools requiring professional development for employees and a written program are:
In addition to these standards, there is one standard that covers all hazardous conditions. This is known as the: General Duty Clause (GDC), Section 5(a)(1) of theWilliam-Steiger OSH Act 29 CFR 654(a)(1):
“Each employer shall furnish to each of his (sic) employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” OSHA inspectors can issue a citation to an employer for any workplace hazard not covered by other OSHA standards.
OSHA does classify schools as an industry. The Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code given to schools by OSHA is 8211. OSHA does inspect schools. These inspections are either random planned selection by NC OSH, complaint-based by an employee or parent or due to an accident. In 2007, NC OSH conducted 18 inspections in North Carolina schools citing 112 standards violations and assessed $22,007 in fines.2
The Laboratory Standard
State Board of Education
The State Board of Education required school systems to send a copy of their chemical hygiene plans (CHP) to the North Carolina Department of Education by January, 31, 2007. The chemical hygiene plan is not a requirement by the State Board of Education but a requirement of Federal and State Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA) as of January 31, 1991. Furthermore, this CHP is required for all middle and secondary schools. Elementary schools that have a separate laboratory for science also require a CHP. Many teachers believe they do not use chemicals or they are harmless because the chemicals they use are household chemicals. Household chemicals are also hazardous.
29 CFR §1910.1450 (1990) Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories Standard
OSHA 29 CFR §1910.1450(b)
29 CFR §1910.1450(b) Regulation Defining CHO and Duties (Mandatory)
29 CFR §1910.1450(e)(3)(vii)
Hazard Communication Standard (Right-to-Know)
29 CFR §1910.1200 (1983) -
This standard applies to art, vocational education and all other areas of the school. Protection under OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) includes all workers exposed to hazardous chemicals in all industrial sectors. Schools are classified by OSHA as an industry. This standard is based on a simple concept - that employees have both a need and a right to know the hazards and the identities of the chemicals they are exposed to when working. They also need to know what protective measures are available to prevent adverse effects from occurring. Hazards of chemicals must be conveyed on container labels and material safety data sheets (MSDSs). .It also provides necessary hazard information to employees so they can participate in and support the protective measures in place at their workplaces. All chemicals have associated hazards such as toxicity. Toxicity is determined by the dosage. Even water can be toxic as in the recent case of a California woman drinking more water in a given period then her body could assimilate. While harards cannot be removed, risks can be minimized.
Employers who use toxic or hazardous substances must provide employees with:
Professional / Industry Standards
In analyzing the duty of care owed by a teacher, school, etc. to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of employees and students, courts often look at industry standards to provide evidence of the standard of care in the specific industry. While these standards are not necessarily a definitive statement as to what the standard of care is for a particular industry—as the court must make the legal determination as to what the standard in the industry actually is for a particular set of facts—often the industry standard is the best evidence of what the standard of care should be ina particular situation. When industry groups reach consensus on a particular issue, such as the ANSI standard for eye wear, the court has a much easier task in reaching a decision, than when there is conflict in a standard.3
It is not an option for school systems or schools to obey federal, state and local laws, codes, regulations and standards which regulate school employees and science laboratories. Employers must provide science safety professional development for school personnel. The Laboratory Standard establishes needed science safety and emergency equipment for laboratories and requires a CHP. This standard is unique in also requiring a “qualified ”CHO. School superintendents and principals cannot pass their legal responsibility of being the CHO to another individual who is not qualified. The CHO must be given training and / or education, authority, financial support and time to implement an effective school laboratory safety program. For a more thorough discussion on Legal Issues, see the chapter on Legal Issues in Laboratory Safety in the Science Laboratory Safety Manual.
2www.osha.gov/oshstats/index.html “Search Inspections by SIC