While science labs can be dangerous places, schools can take several steps to prevent accidents, experts say. Those measures include:
Limiting class sizes. Accidents rise dramatically along with the number of students in a science lab, according to Sandra W. West, an associate professor of biology at Southwest Texas State University. In classes with more than 24 students, 58 percent had a mishap—ranging from a minor chemical spill to an accident with injury—in the previous year, according to a 2001 survey of Texas teachers conducted by Ms. West. Such incidents happened at less than half the rate in labs with 22 or fewer students.
Expanding classroom space. The accident rate in rooms smaller than 800 square feet is more than four times as high as it is in rooms larger than 1,200 square feet, according to Ms. West’s studies. Mishaps are six times more likely when a room has 41 square feet per student than when it has 60 square feet per student.
Teaching teachers safety practices. Teachers who know about safe practices are more likely to head off problems than those who haven’t been trained.
Being careful with chemicals. Keep chemicals in a locked room with a fireproof door, the National Science Teachers Association recommends in its Guide to School Science Facilities. Reduce inventory to keep all that teachers need for just a year or two. Label all chemicals clearly, including solutions combining two or more chemicals, Ms. West says.
Keeping other classes out of science rooms. Science classrooms typically have extra electrical outlets, plumbing, and gas lines. Consequently, teachers who work in them need to be prepared for problems that might occur because students use the gas or electrical equipment when they’re not supposed to. The best preventive step is to keep other classes out of those rooms.
Establishing dress codes. Open-toed sandals leave students’ skin vulnerable if acids spill during a chemistry experiment, and long hair can fall into a flame if it’s not pulled back, according John Whitsett, a science teacher at Fond du Lac High School, in Fond du Lac, Wis., who is active in statewide safety projects.