By Ken Roy
Posted on 2023-05-01
As science teachers know, science laboratories and classrooms can be unsafe teaching/learning instructional sites. Given the numerous potential safety hazards and resulting health and safety risks, accidents can happen, even if the appropriate safety actions are taken. As science instructional site teachers are the school employees who are legally responsible for addressing these potential hazards and resulting risks, they need to make sure legal safety standards and better professional safety hazards are met. School administrators must recognize this responsibility and support their science instructional site teachers by ensuring they receive the training they need to successfully implement the appropriate standards to keep their students and staff safer.
I present two potential laboratory instructional site safety scenarios to illustrate the possible legal issues for laboratory employees and school administrators in schools.
Scenario 1. A high school chemistry teacher became aware at the beginning of the school year that he was short on indirectly vented chemical splash goggles needed for lab occupants to carry out the curriculum’s required laboratory activities and demonstrations. This shortage resulted from having more than 30 students scheduled for his chemistry class in a laboratory with an occupancy load of 24 plus the teacher. He spoke to the chief building administrator or CBA (principal) about the issue of the overloaded laboratory and lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). The principal told the teacher that occupancy load was only a recommendation, not a legal issue. He also noted there was a budget freeze, so the school had no funds currently available to purchase additional PPE. “Besides, teachers are protected by held-harmless laws in their state,” he added.
The teacher then told the principal that he didn’t believe he should conduct the required labs, given the potential safety hazards. The principal got angry and told the teacher he had better conduct the lab work because the students needed science laboratory credit to be accepted to colleges requiring that prerequisite, and he didn’t want to have to address insubordination issues if the teacher did not conduct the hands-on laboratory work. Though upset, the teacher made a poor decision and carried out the laboratory work.
Several weeks later, a student got splashed with a lab chemical that burned her eyes. The teacher reported it to the school nurse and principal. The parents were threatening legal action against the teacher. The principal told the teacher he didn’t recall having a conversation about the need for additional PPE and occupancy load issues. The teacher was basically hung out to dry legally by the principal and his bad advice.
Both the teacher and principal would more than likely be found to be reckless in a court case, should it transpire. Either way, the teacher needs to work with their union and secure legal advice from an attorney.
Scenario 2. In another state, a high school physics teacher also became aware at the beginning of the school year that she was short on safety glasses with side shields needed for lab occupants to carry out the curriculum’s required laboratory instructional site activities and demonstrations. This shortage resulted from having more than 28 students scheduled for her science class in a laboratory with an occupancy load of 24 plus the teacher. She scheduled a meeting with the CBA (principal) about the issue of the overloaded laboratory and lack of sufficient PPE. The principal responded that occupancy load was only a recommendation, not a legal issue. He also noted there was a budget freeze, so the school had no funds currently available to purchase additional PPE. “Besides, teachers are protected by held-harmless laws in their state,” he added.
The teacher told the principal she was not comfortable with conducting the required labs, given the potential safety hazards. The principal got upset and told the teacher she had better conduct the lab work because the students needed science laboratory credit to be accepted to colleges requiring that prerequisite, and he didn’t want to have to address insubordination issues if the teacher did not conduct the hands-on laboratory work.
Concerned about her students’ and her safety, not to mention her potential liability, the teacher sent the CBA a follow-up e-mail noting their meeting and the two major safety issues at hand. She noted that she had suspended all lab activities requiring the use of PPE, stating it was her understanding that she was legally charged with the responsibility of determining if the laboratory was safer to carry out hands-on activities and demonstrations. The teacher also said there potentially was shared liability with the administration should an accident occur in the laboratory.
She attached several references, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code Occupancy Load requirements for school laboratories (50 sq. ft. net), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) PPE standard on eye and face protection (https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.133), the school’s Chemical Hygiene Plan noting the requirement for PPE, the NSTA Safety Advisory Board paper on Personal Protective Equipment (https://www.nsta.org/personal-protective-equipment), the state General Statute dealing with eye-protective devices for students, and an NSTA Safety Blog post titled Laboratory Eye Protection Denial Syndrome (https://www.nsta.org/blog/laboratory-eye-protection-denial-syndrome). The teacher also had contacted her union president about the issue and copied him on the e-mail to the principal.
Upon receiving this e-mail, the CBA immediately requested a meeting with the teacher. The teacher accepted, but stipulated that a union representative would also be attending. At the beginning of the meeting, the union representative noted that if this issue was not appropriately addressed, the union would have no other alternative but to contact the local fire marshal and their state’s OSHA plan representative. The CBA replied that there would be no need for that action, and he was contrite. He admitted he was not aware of the legal requirements. He then agreed to provide emergency funding for appropriate PPE and would contact the guidance department to reschedule a number of students so the occupancy load for that lab would be met as legally required. Ultimately, these two important safety issues were resolved.
When it comes to safety issues and dealing with administrators and/or supervisors, let it be written and it must be done! As illustrated in scenario 1, educators can be found liable for a student’s injuries. Teachers do not have legal protection in cases of laboratory instructional site accidents, especially if they are determined to be reckless—knowing what they were doing was not legal, but still endangered others’ lives by doing it. Any administrator who claims their teachers do have this mythical protection are propagating falsehoods that can harm both students and staff.
Never just talk to a CBA or supervisor about a safety issue without following up in writing, preferably through school e-mail so an electronic record is also available for review. Also, keep a copy of the written document at home—not in your lab or office—and share it with your union representative. Make sure you have a witness in any face-to-face meeting with the administrator/supervisor regarding safety. In most cases, the CBA needs to be educated by the laboratory teacher, who is legally responsible for laboratory safety.
Remember that the safety of everyone—students, teachers, staff, and visitors—is top priority. It is not business as usual in the laboratory if there are issues with engineering controls (e.g., ventilation, eyewash, fire extinguisher, etc.), administrative protocols (safety procedures, chemical hygiene plan, etc.), lab equipment (e.g., chipped or broken glassware, frayed wires, etc.), and PPE (safety goggles, safety glasses with side shields, gloves, aprons, etc.). Do not under any circumstances proceed with laboratory activities and/or demonstrations if potential hazards and resulting health and safety risks cannot be addressed by taking the appropriate safety actions. (See NSTA Safety Issue Paper: New Laboratory Activities and Demonstrations at https://static.nsta.org/pdfs/ManagingYourChemicalInventoryPart3.pdf.)
NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank nationally recognized District Supervisor of Science Kevin S. Doyle, Ed. D., Morris Hills Regional District, Rockaway, New Jersey (firstname.lastname@example.org) for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary.
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at email@example.com. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.