Education Commentary

Improving Laboratory Safety in Schools

By James A. Kaufman — March 08, 1989 3 min read

My research and my work with laboratory-safety programs have convinced me that schools are not doing enough to promote safety in the laboratory--and that this oversight is endangering lives.

The stories are chilling.

A student at a high school in Florida was performing an experiment using sulfuric acid. When she knocked over a cylinder of the acid, she was severely burned and permanently scarred by the highly corrosive liquid. She had been allowed to participate in the lab wearing a cheerleading outfit.

Another student, at a boys’ school in Connecticut, took from a lab a piece of sodium that had been improperly stored. He put the explosive substance in his back pocket and walked into the hallway, where body moisture caused it to ignite. Hearing the boy’s screams, a teacher in an adjacent classroom smothered the flames and saved the student’s life.

Unfortunately, these stories represent not aberrations but all-too-common occurrences. Estimates suggest that the rate of injury in the laboratories of both secondary schools and colleges is from 10 to 50 times greater than is the norm in the chemical industry.

And informal surveys of secondary-school personnel in the Northeast who have participated in Curry College’s laboratory-safety seminars reveal that fewer than 1 percent of their schools have a written lab-safety program.

The scope of the problem extends beyond the secondary-school classroom. Graduating students take their poor safety habits to their first jobs, where as new employees they have a greater likelihood of being hurt. Injuries to new employees account for 50 to 60 percent of all industrial injuries.

In their homes, these untrained adults may expose themselves and their children to the risks posed by improper disposal of hazardous wastes, poor storage of flammable and toxic solvents, and unsecured medicines and household cleaners.

Yet safety training for secondary-school science teachers--who might be expected to play a leading role in safety promotion--is almost nonexistent. In a survey of the 50 state education departments, none of the 26 respondents reported any safety-training criteria for teacher education. Many felt this training would take place in college science courses.

In fact, however, less than 5 percent of college chemistry departments offer a separate course in laboratory safety.

The unwillingness of either schools or universities to teach safety creates a vicious cycle of poor preparation for teachers and students.

And the difficulty of establishing sound safety procedures is exacerbated by the speed with which new hazards are being discovered. Such chemicals as benzene, formaldehyde, and chromium compounds, for example, are now perceived to be far more hazardous than they were thought to be only a few years ago.

As a first step toward improving safety practices in secondary schools, states should mandate training in laboratory safety for all science instructors. Teachers must be prepared to recognize and minimize the risks of using chemicals, to store them properly, and to dispose of them in environmentally sound ways. Current information about safe practices is essential for teachers.

And school administrators should establish institutional policies, provide funding, and oversee implementation of programs.

In the classroom, science teachers must make health and safety an integral part of their instruction; they should teach students about the hazards present not only in the science lab but also outside the school.

To help ensure that they are ready to conduct laboratory work safely, teachers might ask themselves the following questions about each activity:

What are the risks associated with this activity?

What are its worst possible outcomes?

What do I need to do to be prepared if they should occur?

What practices, equipment, and facilities would reduce risks?

How can I relate these hazards to dangers that my students face in their everyday lives?

In addition to Curry’s laboratory-safety workshop, the following organizations offer information on safety: the American Chemical Society, the Council of State Science Supervisors, the National Safety Council, and the National Science Teachers Association.

Students will be protected and future employees adequately prepared when schools and their science teachers recognize that teaching safe practices is as important as the other aspects of their curriculum.

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Improving Laboratory Safety in Schools