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Reducing the Risk of Liability in the Lab

By Kenneth Roy

Posted on 2018-10-17

If a student gets injured while taking part in a laboratory activity, the science teacher and school district have potential liability for their failure to prevent the harm to the student. This blog post describes the duty of care of science teachers and specific safety actions teachers can take to reduce the risk of liability in their classroom and lab.

Duty of care

One outstanding resource for reducing liability of science teachers is the National Science Teachers Association’s position paper titled “Liability of Science Educators for Laboratory Safety.” The introduction of the paper explains the duty of care of teachers in the science classroom:

As professionals, teachers of science have a duty or standard of care to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff. Duty of care is defined as an obligation, recognized by law, requiring conformance to a certain standard of conduct to protect others against unreasonable risk (Prosser et al. 1984, NSTA 2014a). “The breach of a particular duty owed to a student or others may lead to liability for both the teacher and the school district that employs that teacher.”

How can this duty of care be met? Science teachers, supervisors, and administrators should follow the “Declarations” section of the NSTA position paper to help keep students, the teacher, and school from becoming liable when engaging in hands-on science activities. NSTA recommends that science educators:

• exercise reasonable judgment when conducting laboratory investigations;
• accept the duty of care to provide all students and staff with the safest environment possible when performing hands-on science investigations or demonstrations in the laboratory, classroom, or field setting; using, storing, disposing/recycling, or transporting biological, chemical, or physical materials; or engaging in related activities;
• share the responsibility with school district officials in establishing and implementing written safety standards, policies, and procedures, and ensure their compliance is based on legal safety standards and better professional practices;
• be proactive in seeking professional learning opportunities to implement practices and procedures necessary to conduct laboratory science investigations that are as safe as possible, including specific training on storage, use, and disposal of biological, chemical, and physical materials; use of personal protective equipment; engineering controls; and proper administrative procedures (Roy 2006);
• conduct regular preventative maintenance on engineering controls (e.g., eyewash, shower, ventilation) in science classrooms and laboratories and ensure controls are accessible and appropriate for the specific class subject, type of investigation, and student development level;
• modify or select alternative activities to perform when the proposed activities cannot be performed safely or a safer environment cannot be maintained, based on hazards analysis, risks assessment, and available safety actions;
• identify, document, and notify school and district officials about existing or potential safety issues that impact the learning environment, including hazards such as class-size overcrowding in violation of occupancy load codes (ICC 2015, NFPA 2015) or contrary to safety research (West and Kennedy 2014), inadequate or defective equipment, inadequate number or size of labs, or improper facility design (Motz, Biehle, and West 2007), and give necessary recommendations to correct the issue or rectify a particular situation (see NSTA safety statement for specific recommendations); and
• understand the scope of the duty of care in acting as a reasonably prudent person in providing science instruction, and acknowledge the limitations of insurance in denying coverage for reckless and intentional acts, as well as the potential for individual liability for acts outside the course and scope of employment. [See generally, Restatement (Second) of Torts §202. 1965; Anderson, Stanzler, and Masters 1999, p. 398.]

Specific safety actions
Liability has evolved over time to require teachers to act as a reasonable person in carrying out the duty of care. A teacher must comply with established and required safety standards and better professional practices. According to the NSTA Safety Advisory Board and Roy and Love (2017, p. 16), science teachers and their supervisors and administrators need to address the following standards and practices by taking specific actions while working in the laboratory.

Duty to notify students of safety practices and procedures. Review and have students sign and return a safety acknowledgement form at the beginning of the school year prior to laboratory work that outlines the safety practices that your class will follow. See NSTA’s “Safety in the Science Classroom” sample safety acknowledgment forms: Elementary Science Safety Acknowledgment Form, Middle School Safety Acknowledgment Form, and High School Safety Acknowledgment Form. In addition, require students to receive a score of at least 90% on a safety assessment addressing material in the acknowledgment form and initial safety instruction before they can begin any lab work.
Duty to model safety. Always model appropriate safety techniques with students prior to having them work with equipment or carry out procedures (e.g., how to light a Bunsen burner, how to wear safety goggles).
Duty to warn. Always advise students of dangers relative to safety prior to and during use of potentially hazardous equipment and materials. For example, before dissecting specimens, remind students that scalpels are sharp and can puncture skin.
Duty to inspect for safety. Monitor student behavior for safety and inspect equipment before, during, and after activities to help foster a safer working and learning environment.
Duty to enforce safety practices and procedures. Always enforce appropriate safety behavior and have a well-defined progressive disciplinary policy in place for all students.
Duty to maintain a safe learning environment. Make sure engineering controls such as ventilation, fume hoods, and master gas shut-offs and personal protective equipment such as safety goggles, gloves, and aprons are operational and meet the manufacturers’ standards. For example, if the ventilation cap on a chemical splash goggle was removed, discard the goggles.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

Roy, K., and T. Love. 2017. Safer makerspaces, fab labs, and STEM Labs: A collaborative guide! (1st ed.). Vernon, CT: National Safety Consultants.

Thanks to Kelly Ryan of The Ryan Law Firm in Monrovia, California, for his review of this safety blog post.

NSTA resources and safety issue papers
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