Laboratory Safety in the Schools
While the risk of a classroom or school laboratory accident resulting in injury or serious damage is small, the risk does exist. It is the responsibility of district administrators, safety personnel, and teachers to develop and implement these programs for the safety of all. The importance of laboratory safety has been recognized by industry, government, and institutions of higher education for decades. These entities have developed, implemented, and stringently followed comprehensive safety and procedural programs to reduce the rate of accidents, manage the risk of incidents and injuries to personnel and students, and to establish clear default guidelines and procedures to deal with such events when they do occur.
Keywords Chemical Compatibility; Chemical Disposal; Chemical Hygiene Plan; Chemical Tracking System; Chemicals; Disposal of Toxic Materials; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Green Chemistry; Hazardous Substances; Laboratory; Material Safety Data Sheets; Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA); Public School; Safety; Toxic
The teaching of science in the nation's schools has progressed far beyond what existed even a few years ago. With the constant pace of progress and discovery in the scientific fields, school districts across the country are constantly being challenged to keep up with these advances, adding them to their science curricula both academically in the classroom and practically in the science and chemistry laboratory. These new experiments (as well as many older ones) being taught in the lab are fairly complicated and have an element of risk to them that must managed by proper laboratory procedures and safety programs. It is the responsibility of the school or district to develop and implement them to ensure the safety of both the teaching staff and the students (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2007).
However, in many districts, comprehensive laboratory safety procedures and programs are either nonexistent, out of date, or not judiciously followed, which increases the risk of accident or injury to all involved ("Promote science lab safety," 2006). This shortcoming can also place the potential liability for such incidents squarely upon the school or school district which failed to develop, update, or fully implement these vital guidelines.
The importance of laboratory safety has been recognized by industry, government, and institutions of higher education for decades. These entities have developed, implemented, and stringently followed comprehensive safety and procedural programs to reduce the rate of accidents, manage the risk of incidents and injuries to personnel and students, and to establish clear default guidelines and procedures to deal with such events when they do occur. The passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 which formalized the requirement that guidelines and precautions must be developed to protect employees of all firms from hazards on the job "set in stone" the requirements for such procedures in industry, government, and academia. Yet, unlike industry and government, in many of the nation's schools, these safety procedures and programs have been slowly or incompletely implemented, if at all.
While the risk of a classroom or school laboratory accident resulting in injury or serious damage is small, the risk does exist. It is the responsibility of district administrators, safety personnel, and teachers to develop and implement these programs for the safety of all. Without proper safety programs in place, that small risk factor can balloon, resulting in potentially grave situations that could escalate into serious injury to people and or damage to school facilities. Properly developed, implemented, and followed safety procedures will help ensure that these risks are kept minimal by familiarizing students with the potential hazards of their activity, preventative measures against accidents, and emergency procedures to follow in the event of an accident to so that a productive and safe learning experience can be shared by all (Roy, 2001).
School District Responsibilities
The development, implementation, and enforcement of school laboratory safety programs are the responsibility of the individual school districts. When a science curriculum is developed, an integral part of that development should include comprehensive safety and health instruction as a first step in practical instruction in the laboratory. While the Federal Government does not require that students be given safety and health instruction, it does require that employees (teachers and assistants) be given this training. Some individual states (such as North Carolina) have recognized the need for a formal laboratory safety program for students, do require that state guidelines be followed and that students receive training similar to that required by the Federal OSHA statutes (Stroud, 2007).
Teachers are next in the chain of responsibility, as the first line of contact for students in the laboratory; they are the most important link in this chain. By carefully instructing students in the safety procedures to be followed, familiarizing them with the laboratory equipment, the proper handling procedures for chemicals to be used, and by providing adequate supervision during every stage of the learning process, teachers have the most influence on their students to ensure the successful and safe outcome to practical laboratory experiments.
Finally, it is the responsibility of the students in the laboratory to follow the guidelines and safety procedures taught to them. While the students may come from a wide variety of backgrounds that may prepare some of them for the responsibilities of the lab, others may not have any experience in such activities or predilection to follow such strict guidelines. It must be impressed upon them that their safety and success depends upon carefully following procedures and adequate time must be set aside to ensure that all are thoroughly familiar with, and motivated to follow, these steps prior to beginning the experiments. In itself, the training is a good start towards establishing a firm step by step procedural foundation that the students may build upon to prepare for and enhance their experience in the laboratory.
Division of Tasks in the Laboratory
In the laboratory, there is a distinct division of duties and responsibilities between instructors and students. The instructors are responsible for the planning, preparation, instruction, and execution of the practicum while providing adequate supervision during all phases, ensuring adherence to the guidelines of the instruction, and maintaining a safe learning environment for all. The task of supervision and leadership to ensure the safety of students is probably the most critical factor while performing school laboratory experiments (Kaufman, 1995).
The duties of teachers and aides may include, but are not limited to:
• Proper maintenance and operation of laboratory and safety equipment and facilities,
• Proper administrative records keeping and training documentation,
• Identification of possible hazards or hazardous situations that may exist,
• Instruction for participants in safety procedures and emergency action plans,
• Knowledge of and familiarity in the use of safety and emergency equipment,
• Knowledge of the location and operation of critical shutoffs for systems such as gas, liquid, and electricity,
• Proper storage, documentation, and monitoring of chemicals stored in the laboratory,
• Ensuring order and adherence to procedures in the laboratory while experiments are underway.
Students also have responsibilities in the lab. It is critical for them to understand that serious incidents can occur if proper attention is not paid to their experiments, or if their conduct causes an accident with the equipment or chemicals. Safety must be paramount in all of their actions while in this environment. Student responsibilities may include, but are not limited to:
• Proper and safe behavior in the lab
• Knowing and following all applicable safety and health guidelines
• Following standard, established laboratory and chemical handling procedures
• Ensuring that their work stations are kept neat, free from clutter and properly cleaned
• Wearing the proper clothing and safety equipment while in the laboratory
• No eating, drinking, or smoking in the lab
• Properly dispose of all chemicals and broken glassware
• Knowing all emergency and evacuation procedures
The Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP)
When storing chemicals in the laboratory, a Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP) is the most important part of managing these potentially hazardous substances. The CHP is a written document that outlines the safety procedures and...
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