Tips to Make Your School’s Chemistry Lab Safer

By Linda Childers

School chemistry classes are meant to be fun and challenging venues where students learn how science defines nearly every element of our lives. Yet sadly stories continue to abound where experiments have gone horribly wrong and injured both students and teachers in the process.

“In order to prevent or reduce future accidents, schools need to look at how they can make their labs safer,” says Dr. Kenneth Roy, director of science and safety, Glastonbury Public Schools in Glastonbury, Conn., and chief science safety compliance consultant for the National Science Teachers Association.

Roy notes that one of the most potentially dangerous experiments being conducted in school chemistry labs is the “rainbow experiment,” meant to show how various mineral salts produce different colored flames when burned. In December 2013, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a video entitled, After the Rainbow, featuring accident survivor Calais Weber, who describes how at age 15 she was burned over 40% of her body during a chemistry demonstration performed by her teacher at the prestigious boarding school she attended in Ohio.

“The CSB believes that accidents in high school laboratories occur with alarming frequency,” says CSB chairperson Rafael Moure Eraso. “As Calais states in After the Rainbow, her accident should never have occurred, and with better attention to good safety practices, similar accidents can be avoided.”

Roy recommends that private schools implement the following best practices to attain a safer chemistry lab environment:

Obtain Safety Training

“Safety is a constantly changing landscape and many teachers receive pre-safety training in college,” Roy says. He encourages private schools to send teachers to annual safety inservices.

Make Friends With Fire Officials

“Science labs should be inspected on a regular basis to help teachers make sure all things are operating and functioning safety-wise,” Roy says. “Your local fire officials can also determine if you have the proper safety equipment in place, and ensure that schools are following legal safety standards and have appropriate ventilation systems, fume hoods, fire extinguishers, etc.”

Consider Liability

“You can take all the precautions on the planet and accidents still happen,” says Roy. “Teachers should make sure their school has insurance to protect them from personal financial liability stemming from employment-related lawsuits. If a teacher feels the school’s plan doesn’t offer enough coverage, they may want to consider getting an individual liability insurance policy.”

Learn Best Practices

  • Download a free document outlining OSHA’s Training Requirements and Guidelines for K-14 School Personnel from the National Science Teachers Association. This provides a summary of OSHA training requirements and guidelines, at both the national and state level, as determined by state. It provides training guidelines, characteristics of an acceptable trainer, and topics that are required among various states. The NSTA also provides a safety portal with resources, journals with monthly safety columns that deal with current safety issues, safety seminars at regional and national conferences, webinars, books on laboratory safety, and more.
  • The video, After the Rainbow, a video safety message focused on potential dangers in high school chemistry labs, can be streamed and downloaded at csb.gov. This video is a follow-up to Experimenting With Danger, concerning lab accidents at three major universities. This video can also be downloaded on the CSB site.
  • Flinn Lab Safety in Batavia, Illinois, offers free videos for teachers on their company website. Teachers can earn certification or view individual videos on topics including how to design a safe lab, science classroom safety and the law, and more.