By Ken Roy
Posted on 2021-07-08
As the 2021–2022 school year approaches and things are getting closer to “normal,” it’s time to re-establish our STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) spaces (for the purposes of this blog post, STEM spaces include a science lab, technology and engineering lab [i.e., construction lab], makerspace, etc.) and make sure everything is safer for the new school year. Our students need to explore their curiosities and develop their skills in a hands-on, inquiry-based environment that is safer and up-to-date. Our responsibility through Duty or Standard of Care requires that we protect our students and our staff members by providing safer STEM spaces. Just because things are returning to normal does not mean that they are normal. Take the time to make things right.
Back at school, before starting with hands-on activities in the laboratory—especially after the long pandemic period during which student learning has in many cases been virtual—science/STEM teachers need to double check important safety Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). These procedures are key to safer teaching/learning experiences for both teachers and students, and need to be established and followed. Where do these safety SOPs originate from? SOPs are derived from legal safety standards established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), etc., and better professional safety practices developed by NSTA, the American Chemical Society (ACS), and other professional associations.
For example, OSHA’s Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories or Lab Standard 29 CFR 1910.1450 and OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200 provide many SOPs for academic science/STEM laboratories. As for better professional safety practices, the NSTA Safety Advisory Board has developed a number of laboratory practices in safety resources posted to NSTA’s Safety Blog.
OSHA’s Lab Standard requires a written chemical hygiene plan that includes standard operating procedures. The following is a sample list of recommended and often required SOPs.
A. Security of Laboratories and Other Designated Areas. All laboratory areas (lab room, preparation room, and storeroom) are to remain locked in the absence of a designated employee. These areas must be secured given the biological, chemical and physical hazards. Unsecured labs allow for potential accidents by intruders and resulting liability issues for the lab teachers and the school. Schools are responsible for all of the chemicals that they purchase, store, use, and discard. Schools can be held liable if the chemicals are removed from their storage areas in unsecured labs, even without the school’s permission. (See Science Classroom Safety and The Law by Kelly Ryan .)
B. Pre-Lab Procedures. Before conducting a lab, always do a hazard analysis and risk assessment, and determine the resulting safety actions required. Obtain Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for all chemicals and make copies for your classroom! Advise students of all precautionary notes provided on SDSs. Women of childbearing age should wear gloves when working with chemicals. Eyewash and other engineering controls should be tested prior to laboratory activities.
Most of the equipment used in STEM spaces has gone unused over the past 15 months. Many devices may need repair or replacement. If a piece of equipment is not in working order, do not use it. If you do, and an accident or an injury occurs, you and your school district can be legally and financially held responsible. It is your responsibility to make sure everything is in working order before the STEM session begins. This equipment includes, but is not limited to, glassware, lab equipment, tools, safety equipment (including but not limited to fire extinguishers, fire blankets, eyewash stations, fume hoods, doors, windows, safety showers, goggles, gloves, aprons, and so on). In addition, check your chemical inventory to make sure that nothing has expired or has reacted. Any chemicals that have exceeded their shelf life must be properly removed and disposed of.
C. Chemical Procurement, Use, Labeling, and Storage. All hazardous materials procurement must be reviewed and approved by the Chemical Hygiene Officer (CHO). All flammable liquids must be stored in approved containers and amounts. Remember that laboratory fume/exhaust hoods are not intended for chemical storage. Prior to and during the use of chemicals that produce potentially toxic or noxious vapors, the ventilation system must be checked for operation. Only explosion-proof refrigerators may be used for storage of flammable materials requiring lower temperatures. Make sure refrigerators have designated storage use for either hazardous chemicals and biologicals or food for human consumption. OSHA requires that they are labeled appropriately on the outside of the door.
D. Food and Drink. Food and drink are not allowed in the laboratories, save authorized exceptions by the CHO.
E. Clothing. Bare feet and open-toed or perforated shoes are not permitted while working with chemicals or in the lab in general. Chemical-resistant aprons are required when working with chemicals. Oversized sleeves, dangling jewelry, etc. should not be worn, as they may interfere with the preparation/handling of materials. Cover bare skin with long sleeves or a laboratory coat appropriate for the chemicals used.
F. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Indirectly vented chemical splash goggles shall be worn when handling hazardous chemical liquid materials, which have the potential to splash the eyes. Goggles or safety glasses with side shields can be used when working with physical hazards (e.g., springs, glassware, etc.). Gloves and aprons or laboratory coats appropriate for the material shall be worn when using chemicals. Consult SDS Section VIII for appropriate PPE use. Face shields, along with safety goggles, shall be worn when preparing and/or transferring corrosive materials or where there is the possibility of chemical splash.
G. Chemicals To Be Recycled. All chemicals to be recycled should be stored in a designated area. Recycling containers shall be labeled as required under appropriate regulations. Every attempt will be made to remove chemicals to be recycled within one calendar year by a licensed pre-approved contractor. Consult your CHO and/or local landfill or recycling plan supervisor for more information.
H. Engineering Controls. Required laboratory engineering controls include these: goggle sanitizer cabinet, fire extinguishers [ABC, D Types (as appropriate)], fire blanket, eyewash station, drench-type safety shower, and exhaust hood. Preventative maintenance is critical in making sure these engineering controls are operational and functioning at the required levels before any lab activities are done.
As noted initially, most STEM spaces were dormant over the past 15 months. Thus, they may not have been correctly maintained during this time frame. All systems must be inspected before students and staff start conducting “business” in these spaces. It is recommended that the following items need to be addressed:
I. Housekeeping Practices. Employees are expected to actively engage in prudent laboratory housekeeping practices. In addition to chemical and biological hazards, physical hazards such as trip/slip, fall, and electrical hazards are to be eliminated.
J. First Aid. Examples of potential laboratory accidents include heat/chemical burns, penetrating objects, electrical burns, swallowed poisons, bleeding chemical exposure, lacerations, shock, and allergic reaction. The school nurse should provide professional development at the beginning of each school year on how the lab teacher can initially respond to these types of accidents until medical assistance arrives.
K. Signage. Make sure appropriate signage is posted as needed in the lab, including eyewash, emergency shower, fire extinguisher, spill kit, master electrical, fire/evacuation escape routes, and gas shutoffs.
For a safer laboratory teaching/learning experience starting at the beginning and throughout the school year, safety preparation is key! This is why standard operating safety procedures are critical and need to be addressed from the get-go! Have a safer school year!
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci
Safety Blog Acknowledgement: NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank nationally recognized District Supervisor of Science Kevin S. Doyle, EdD, Morris Hills Regional District, Rockaway, New Jersey (email@example.com) for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary.