By Ken Roy
Posted on 2022-08-02
As the 2022–2023 school year draws near, it is time once again to make sure our teaching/learning lab sites are safer for hands-on activities. 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. As noted in the NSTA Safety Blog over the years, the teacher’s responsibility through Duty or Standard of Care requires that our students and our staff members are protected by providing safer instructional sites. Always make the time to make things right safety-wise before school classes begin!
Before conducting any hands-on activities in the laboratory, 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, followed, and enforced.
Why do we have SOPs to begin with? SOPs originate from legal safety standards established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and other safety-related organizations, and better professional safety practices developed by NSTA, the American Chemical Society (ACS), the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA), the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA), 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 applicable to academic science/STEM laboratories. As for better professional safety practices, the NSTA Safety Advisory Board has developed and published a number of laboratory practices in safety resources. SOPs are absolutely necessary not only because they are based on laws and better professional safety practices, but also because they make it safer for all occupants in a lab involved in hands-on activities.
The Federal OSHA and most, if not all, OSHA State Approved Plans have adopted the Lab Standard, which includes a written chemical hygiene plan with standard operating procedures. Non-OSHA states also sometimes adopt the OSHA Lab Standard by “reference.” The following is a sample list of recommended and often required SOPs.
A. Laboratory/Storeroom/Prep Room Security. All laboratory areas (lab room, preparation room, and storeroom) must remain locked in the absence of a designated employee. These areas are required to be secured given the biological, chemical, and physical hazards. Unsecured labs can lead to potential accidents by intruders and resulting liability issues in the form of lawsuits for the lab teachers and the administration. 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: A Handbook for Teachers by Kelly Ryan .)
B. Pre-Lab Procedures. Before doing a hands-on lab, always conduct a potential hazard analysis and resulting risk assessment, and determine the necessary safety actions required. Obtain Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for all chemicals, and distribute printed or electronic copies to your students and other occupants (i.e., custodians, administrators conducting observations, and others). Advise students of all precautionary notes provided on SDSs. Women of childbearing age should wear gloves when working with chemicals. Before conducting any laboratory activities, eyewash, shower, and other engineering controls must be checked to ensure safe proper operation (use owner’s manual for more information).
Most of the equipment used in science/STEM spaces will have gone unused for at least two months—or more. Many devices may need repair or replacement. If a piece of equipment (e.g., beaker, goggles, GFI) is not in working order, do not use it. If an engineering control (e.g., safety shower, gas shutoff, ventilation) is not in working order, do not conduct the activity. If you do an activity with faulty equipment, including engineering controls, and an accident or an injury occurs, you and your administration have joint liability and can be legally and financially held responsible.
It is your responsibility to ensure everything is working appropriately before class sessions begin. 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). In reality, you are responsible for all of the equipment in your science/STEM space while you are tasked with supervising students.
In addition, don’t forget to inspect your chemical inventory and make sure nothing has expired or has reacted. Any chemicals that have exceeded their shelf life must be discarded using proper disposal procedures.
Check your Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP), and check in with your Chemical Hygiene Officer (CHO). It is your responsibility to know if any changes have been made to the plans; what the SOPs are in your science/STEM space; if any new chemicals or biologicals have been added to the banned list; and what to do in an emergency or if an accident occurs.
C. Chemical Purchase, Use, Labeling, and Storage. All hazardous materials purchased must be reviewed and approved by the CHO. All flammable liquids must be stored in approved containers and amounts (e.g., flammable liquid cabinet). Remember that laboratory fume/exhaust hoods are not intended for chemical storage. Chemicals found stored in a fume hood are subject to an OSHA fine during an inspection.
Before and during the use of chemicals that produce potentially toxic or noxious vapors, the ventilation system must be checked for operation. It is best to only use a fume hood in these types of situations. 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 them to be 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. This is the result of potential cross-contamination from chemical or biological residue, and other substances.
E. Clothing. Bare feet and open-toed or perforated shoes are not permitted while working with biological, chemical, or physical hazards in the lab. Chemical-resistant aprons are required when working with chemicals. Oversized sleeves, dangling jewelry, and other similar clothing and accessories 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 meeting the ANSI/ISEA Z87.1 D3 standard shall be worn when handling hazardous chemical liquid materials that 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 a laboratory coat appropriate for the chemicals involved shall be worn when using them. Consult SDS Section VIII for appropriate PPE use.
Face shields along with safety goggles—never in place of safety googles—shall be worn when preparing and/or transferring corrosive materials or where there is the possibility of chemical splash. When PPE is required for an activity, the teacher must show and document that they have demonstrated to students the proper use of the PPE, including how to put it on and how to remove it. Do not assume your students already learned how to do this.
G. Chemicals to Be Recycled. All chemicals to be recycled should be stored in a designated area along with their SDSs. It is best to keep them in trays in case of leakage. 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 the following: goggle sanitizer cabinet, fire extinguishers [A, B, C, D types (as appropriate)], fire blanket, eyewash station, drench-type safety shower, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets, and exhaust hood. Preventative maintenance is critical in ensuring these engineering controls are operational and functioning at the required levels before any lab activities are begun.
Make sure engineering controls are maintained appropriately even when school is not in session. If anyone is in the room conducting maintenance, the engineering controls must be tested and in working order. All systems must be inspected before students and staff start conducting hands-on “business” in these spaces. It is recommended that the following items are 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. Required Signage. Make sure appropriate signage is posted in the lab, including eyewash, emergency shower, fire extinguisher, spill kit, master electrical, fire/evacuation escape routes, and gas shutoffs. Also use NFPA 704 Warning Placards. The NFPA 704 Diamond, commonly referred to as the NFPA Hazard Diamond, provides a system for identifying the specific hazards of a material and the severity of the hazard that would occur during an emergency response. Any chemical storeroom, laboratory, or other area containing chemical hazards should have the NFPA 704 Warning Placard on the door.
For a safer laboratory teaching/learning experience at the beginning and all through the school year, safety preparation is key! Know your standard operating safety procedures and make sure they are addressed from the start: e.g., inspection, correction, training, etc. Have a safer school year!
Safety Blog Acknowledgement. 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 (email@example.com) for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary.
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.