By Mike Marvel
Posted on 2021-10-20
Safety is the cornerstone of any successful science program and an embedded part of a rigorous science education. And as such, it should not be a topic relegated solely to pre-lab discussions and beginning-of-the-year lectures.
Prioritizing safety best practices—both in the fall and ongoing throughout the year—creates a safe and engaging learning environment in which all students can excel. But when it comes to teaching such an important topic, what’s the best way to get started? And what are the essential things to cover?
The seven teacher tips that follow will help ensure safe lab practices year-round while helping educators establish a science culture rooted in safety.
Discuss risks. Adverse incidents are less likely to occur in labs and classrooms when science departments build and foster safety cultures in which safety discussions with students are the norm. As such, every hands-on activity that presents an exposure risk should begin with a discussion of how to prevent that exposure and minimize that risk, such as by wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), reviewing chemical labels, and reading safety data sheets. Remember to always allot extra time for students to ask their own questions, too.
Conduct research. Before performing a new experiment or demonstration, conduct internet research to determine whether unforeseen things have happened to others who have performed the experiment or demonstration. For example, as a graduate student, I researched a synthesis reaction I planned to attempt and found it had resulted in a compound that was a known detonation risk. Ten minutes was all it took for me to become aware of this tremendous risk.
As educators, we must take the time—although we often have little of it—to do safety research when introducing new investigations to students.
Never add methanol to a burning flame. Resist the urge to do things to get a reaction from students, such as adding more methanol during the classic methanol flame test demonstration in which chloride salts are burned in the presence of methanol to observe their flame colors. Adding methanol to burning flames can cause flashback fires that have resulted in serious injuries to students and teachers.
As always, students should wear PPE, specifically safety goggles, when observing demonstrations such as this, not just when they are handling chemicals themselves.
Inspect equipment. As many teachers may have been away from the physical lab for a while, take the time to inspect glassware, equipment, and chemicals before using them with students. Glassware should be free of cracks, electrical cords on equipment should be intact and not fraying, and chemicals should be used within their recommended shelf-life.
Use a safety contract. Have students sign a safety contract at the start of the school year, then revisit the contract at regular intervals throughout the year. Once students have had a chance to perform experiments and participate in lab procedures, they will likely have a better understanding as to why the points in the contract are so important.
Provide frequent reminders. Remember some students are complete novices when it comes to scientific practices and understanding: To them, water looks the same as acids and bases, for example. They need to be constantly reminded to assess their surroundings and to wear proper PPE during experiments.
Students should also be reminded about the routes of exposure: ingestion, inhalation, and contact. The PPE worn in the lab and the equipment used, such as fume hoods, are meant to prevent inhalation and contact. Ingestion is avoided by not bringing food or drinks into the lab, thus avoiding unintentional ingestion. To help keep chemical residue from being ingested, remind students to wash their hands regularly and keep fingers away from their mouths.
Build student confidence. An often overlooked aspect of lab safety is student confidence and comfort. When students are familiar with lab chemicals, equipment, and techniques, they are less likely to apply them in unintended ways. One way to prepare students to safely conduct labs is to provide them access to technique videos before the lab itself. Independent research in college science labs indicates this simple step increases student confidence, and makes for a more efficient and safe lab environment.
Comprehensive, pre-course safety instruction is available online so students can learn about lab safety via videos and animations, and apply their knowledge on assessments. For example, Flinn Scientific’s lab safety course for high school students takes about one hour to complete and can be revisited throughout the year as part of a comprehensive safety program. This course not only teaches students about safety best practices, but also allows teachers and schools to have a record of safety training completion.
When it comes to science safety, repetition is always the key. For safety to be inculcated into the lab and department culture, it must be prioritized and discussed often so that all stakeholders—educators and students alike—can engage in meaningful science exploration.
Mike Marvel is lead scientist and manager of product development for Flinn Scientific, a scientific equipment supplier for education in Batavia, Illinois.