By Ken Roy
Posted on 2022-10-31
The news media announced that on October 12, 2022, a Dinwiddie High School (Dinwiddie County, Virginia) chemistry class had a methanol flame-jetting fire accident resulting from a science lab demonstration gone wrong. After the demonstration had been initially conducted, the science teacher decided to add additional methanol using an open one-gallon methanol container source. According to the fire department representative, “As the methanol was poured by the teacher, the methanol vapor at the bottle opening caused a phenomenon known as flame jetting. Flame jetting caused a large amount of the methanol to be rapidly emitted from the bottle and ignite.” The teacher was performing the demonstration at an open-top desk at the front of the second-floor classroom. As a result of this action, four students were injured, being directly positioned in the path of the fire that would’ve traveled from the mouth of the jug to the wall in a straight line.
Reports of the incident noted that the teacher was not following United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) federal safety recommendations regarding the use of methanol in school science lab demonstrations. These safety recommendations resulted from three previous lab accidents that injured both students and teachers over an eight-week period in 2014, and all three resulted from demonstrations of flames using methanol as the flammable liquid. Each case had flashbacks to methanol containers in the area and caused flame jetting out to the students viewing the demonstrations. In each case, students were not protected with any physical barriers.
The CSB report, which was based on the incident investigations titled Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations, was released at a news conference on October 30, 2014, in Denver, Colorado. Key lessons summarized from the investigation and final report included the following:
The full report can be found and downloaded at
The CSB’s U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board also released a Back to School Safety Alert titled Hazards of Lab Demonstrations. The alert helps raise levels of awareness relative to the hazards of flammables in lab demonstrations and summarized the finding of the investigation. The report can be found by visiting https://www.aiha.org/news/221027-csb-highlights-hazards-of-flammable-chemicals-following-fire-at-high-school and downloading the PDF from the link in the fourth paragraph on this page.
Though the report was released in 2014, here we are in 2022 hearing about the Dinwiddie High School chemistry class laboratory demonstration accident and students being injured due to methanol flame jetting. In an interview conducted by WTKR (https://www.wtkr.com/news/dinwiddie-chemistry-class-did-not-follow-federal-safety-recommendations), Dinwiddie’s Superintendent of Schools Kari Weston said at a press conference that “students told investigators personal protective equipment was not used during the demonstration, which is also not in line with CSB guidance.” She also said that “all educators and students go through annual training, and the teachers are supposed to follow a self-assessment checklist prior to demonstrations.” However, she added, “they do not need to get the demonstrations approved by an administrator.”
Legally under “duty or standard of care,” administrators/supervisors are responsible for the health and safety of their teachers and students. This is achieved via the supervision process, which should include awareness of what science teachers are doing in their labs and if safety protocols are being followed. A science teacher receiving appropriate annual safety training by their employer should also take appropriate safety actions when in the laboratory trenches. In this case, because the teacher made the poor decision to do the demonstration, part of the safety action should have minimally included providing personal protective equipment and barriers (e.g., use of indirectly vented chemical splash goggles and physical barriers, including using a fume hood). The teacher should have determined that he and his students were going to be exposed to potentially serious hazards and resulting health and safety risks in the use of methanol and active flames. Of course, the potential hazards and resulting risks far outweighed the educational value to begin with, and a safer alternative demonstration should have been selected.
In eight short years, we have gone full circle. Is there appropriate annual science teacher safety training to meet the teachers’ needs regarding use of engineering controls, safety protocols, and personal protective equipment? Why weren’t small containers used, as recommended by the CSB report? Were a hazard analysis, risk assessment, and appropriate safety actions taken before a demonstration involving the use of methanol and active flames was conducted? Why wasn’t an alternative demonstration adopted that requires a less dangerous type of alcohol, a fume hood, and personal protective equipment; following administrative safety procedures; and having administrators/supervisors charged with the responsibility of securing and maintaining a safer teaching/learning laboratory environment by using more effective oversight?
Many legal safety standards and better professional safety practices directly address these issues. For example, NSTA has had the following Safety Alert list at the beginning of its safety resources list: Do Not Use Methanol-Based Flame Tests on Open Laboratory Desks (https://www.nsta.org/safety-alert-do-not-use-methanol-based-flame-tests-open-laboratory-desks). Another example is the NSTA Safety Blog post Safer Science Labs, published on August 3, 2019. It introduces the “Triple AAA” method of working toward safer lab activities by doing a potential laboratory hazard analysis and determining the resulting health and safety risk assessment and what safety actions need to be taken. It also introduces an alternative method by the American Chemical Society, the “RAMP” approach: Recognize hazards, Assess risks of hazards, Minimize risks of hazards, and Prepare for emergencies. Both of these methods must be completed before the teacher does a lab demonstration or students do a lab activity. These methods can be found at https://www.nsta.org/blog/safer-science-labs.
The Virginia State Approved OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Plan has a safety standard identical to the federal OSHA’s Lab Standard 29 CFR 1910.1450, which requires that a chemical hygiene officer be assigned and a chemical hygiene plan be developed with safety protocols. Even if a school district is not under the federal or a state OSHA plan, OSHA safety protocols are still considered to be better professional safety practices and should be followed.
Science labs, technology education and engineering labs, STEM/STEAM labs, and other labs are not like a math or language arts classroom. The labs can be dangerous places with potential hazards and resulting risks that can seriously injure laboratory occupants: students and teachers. School boards of education and administrators need to address these important safety issues by doing appropriate safety training of staff and students, following up with appropriate supervision and progressive discipline as needed, and making sure all appropriate safety protocols for lab work are being followed. Yes, labs can be done in a safer way, but it takes focus and commitment on the part of all involved: students, teachers, supervisors, administrators, boards of education, and parents/guardians. The safety information is readily available and must be used to ensure a safer teaching/learning environment. Do it now before someone else in your school gets seriously hurt and the school finds itself in legal turmoil.
Flame Jetting, NSTA Safety Blog post published on April 6, 2021. https://www.nsta.org/blog/flame-jetting
A Three-Step Method for Safer Labs, NSTA Safety Blog post published on January 27, 2017 https://www.nsta.org/blog/three-step-method-safer-labs
Federal chemical safety protocols not followed in Dinwiddie demonstration that led to fire, posted on October 21, 2021, on WRIC.com
Methanol in K–12 Is a Preventable Hazard, by James Palcik. Published on October 21, 2022, by edCircuit.
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.