Science

Science-Lab Safety Upgraded After Mishaps

By David J. Hoff — April 30, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: This story misidentifies the alternative name for methanol. The liquid is also called methyl alcohol.

The lab demonstration was going smoothly, as it had earlier in the day, until methyl alcohol vapors ignited into a ball and flashed across the room at Lakeview High School.

In a moment, eight chemistry students at the Battle Creek, Mich., school were burned—one of them so severely that she’s still undergoing plastic surgery to repair the skin on her face and upper torso, leading to a lawsuit that has since been settled.

Unfortunately, that Jan. 28, 2000, fire at a school laboratory was not as rare as such mishaps should be, safety experts say.

In recent years, students have suffered serious burns, lacerations, and other injuries in lab accidents in Genoa, Ill.; Riverside, Calif.; and Hyrum, Utah, among other places. Some incidents have led to lawsuits that resulted in settlements exceeding $1 million.

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a Georgia couple whose 17-year-old son was electrocuted during a 1997 classroom science experiment in the 3,600-student Franklin County, Ga., school district. The experiment involved stringing a wire around the classroom and cutting away insulation at several points so students could attach probes from a volt meter to learn how to measure electricity. (“Court Declines to Take Case on Electrocution of Student,” April 9, 2003.)

In fact, science classrooms might be the most dangerous places in American schools, especially as more teachers have heeded calls to make the subject a hands-on activity and as student-enrollment booms have squeezed facilities, science education experts say. Yet laboratory experiences, they say, need not be so dangerous.

“In almost every case, there has been some factor that was pretty obvious that should have been attended to that was not attended to,” said Sandra S. West, an associate professor of biology at Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos, and a leading authority on science-classroom safety.

Safety lapses can be as routine as failing to enforce rules requiring protective eyewear during experiments, according to Ms. West and other experts. Another culprit might be poor planning: A teacher, for instance, may bring more of a flammable chemical into a classroom than is needed for an experiment.

Or students might bump into each other in a crowded lab.

What is clear to most safety experts is that teachers and administrators aren’t doing enough to protect their students from injury.

The fire at Lakeview High flared during an experiment in which a teacher had burned five petri dishes filled with various metal chloride salts. The purpose of the experiment was to show that each salt, because of its unique composition, emits a different color when it burns.

The teacher was pouring methanol into the sixth—and final—metal chloride salt when a ball of fire flashed across his desk and engulfed the students sitting across from him. The fire ignited either from vapors hovering in the air above the desk or from vapors coming from the jug of methanol from which the teacher was pouring, according to a report on the incident written by Robert D. Spencer, the superintendent of the 3,400-student Lakeview school district in Battle Creek.

Experts say that many accidents such as the one at Lakeview happen when science teachers conduct experiments without some kind of protective shield between the flammable material and the student observers.

“It was a horrific event, and it sensitized everyone to the fact that this is very dangerous stuff and we have to be very, very careful,” said Mr. Spencer, a former chemistry teacher.

Safety Shields

It’s difficult to identify the number of science-lab accidents every year, according to Ms. West, the Southwest Texas University researcher. Many minor accidents go unreported, and no central researcher collects information about national injury rates.

No one knows if the number of incidents is increasing or if heightened scrutiny has led to more reporting of those that do occur.

But science educators say the number of such accidents could be curtailed with proper precautions.

Some of those steps involve better management of facilities, such as maintaining smaller class sizes for lab experiments to ensure students are not at risk of colliding with each other while handling chemicals or working with flammable materials. Others are safety procedures that should be followed because of the unique dangers of science facilities.

One common mistake, according to safety experts, is to do experiments in an open area without protection for observers.

“The place people get in trouble most often is doing a demonstration, and they don’t have a shield between the demonstration and the students,” said James A. Kaufman, the director of the Laboratory Safety Institute, a Natick, Mass., nonprofit organization that publishes classroom-safety guidelines. “People just don’t use enough shields.”

The most common shield is a fume hood—a lab station that is enclosed by glass except for a section where the teacher can reach in underneath a pane of glass to perform the lab procedures. The glass prevents chemical spills and fire from reaching the observers. It also whisks potentially hazardous fumes out of the room through the school’s ventilation system.

Such fume hoods should be standard equipment in all science laboratories that use hazardous or vaporous chemicals, according to the National Science Teachers Association’s Guide to School Science Facilities.

On the day of the Lakeview High School accident in Battle Creek, the teacher didn’t use the fume hood because the 1950s-era hood in his room forced observers to peer over his shoulder, preventing all the students from watching while he lighted the salts, according to Mr. Spencer.

Since the accident, the superintendent said, the district has completed a previously planned renovation of its high school science labs. Every lab now has a new fume hood that offers a better view of teacher-conducted experiments, he added.

But even with the new equipment, Mr. Spencer has barred teachers from conducting the salt experiment.

“Until we feel that we can give 100 percent assurance that we don’t have a similar event,” Mr. Spencer said, the district will continue with the prohibition. But, he added, the new fume hoods offer a much safer environment than the open classroom where the accident happened.

Some science educators, however, suggest that not allowing students to conduct such experiments is a mistake. As long as appropriate safety measures are in place and teachers know how to conduct the experiments correctly, they recommend letting students do hands-on science.

“Unfortunately, administrators’ knee-jerk reaction [to an accident] is: No more hands-on science,” said Kenneth Russell Roy, the chairman of the NSTA’s science-safety advisory board. He is the director of science and a safety-compliance officer for the 8,000-student Glastonbury, Conn., school system.

‘Constant Vigilance’

Another precaution teachers often fail to make is limiting the amount of a chemical they’re using in a lab procedure, according to Mr. Kaufman, a former chemist for the Dow Chemical Co.

“Teachers bring into the room much larger quantities of flammable materials for demonstrations than they really need to do it,” he said. If an accident occurs, he pointed out, they have “100 times as much [chemical] getting involved in whatever the problem is.”

And even if teachers have performed a procedure without mishap in the past, they may need to rethink whether their procedures are safe, he added.

“It requires constant vigilance and attention, even if it’s gone right 999 times,” Mr. Kaufman said.

With the number of high-profile accidents in recent years, many school officials are starting to focus on safety.

The new Lakeview High School, for example, has built science classrooms that are at least 1,200 square feet in size. They all have new eyewash sinks and safety showers. What’s more, all of the school’s science teachers have attended workshops on lab safety, and the science department annually reviews a checklist that ensures safety equipment is working properly.

While many lab accidents involve methanol—an extremely flammable liquid also known as methyl chloride—students can be burned by spilling an acid in a crowded classroom or by accidently breaking a test tube in their hands. Many of those injuries can be prevented by simple precautions, such as insisting students wear goggles, outlawing open-toed shoes in classrooms, or wearing protective gloves.

Schools are finding, however, they need to take expensive precautions as well. The 437,000-student Chicago school district is planning to spend $120 million over the next decade to renovate every science lab and upgrade safety equipment.

And almost 20 states are working with Jack A. Gerlovich, a professor of science education and safety at Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa, to survey teachers’ safety practices and provide them with training.

In Wisconsin, more than 1,000 teachers attended one-day workshops on science safety between 1999 and 2002.

But such one-day seminars aren’t enough, experts say. Teachers need to update their knowledge as equipment is upgraded and the curriculum changes to include new lab experiments.

Falling Behind

While some places show signs of progress, Ms. West’s research of Texas classrooms suggests that not all classrooms may be getting safer.

In a 1991 survey of Texas science teachers, Ms. West found that 34 percent had labs large enough to accommodate more than 25 students. In a second survey, in 2001, only 16 percent had labs that large.

Other indicators also decreased between 1991 and 2001, according to the survey. In 1991, Ms. West’s research found, 96 percent of teachers said they had a separate storeroom for their chemicals, compared with 64 percent in 2001; and 92 percent said they had enough goggles for their classrooms in 1991, compared with 80 percent 10 years later.

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