By Ken Roy
Posted on 2021-12-02
Science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) laboratories can be unsafe places with potential hazards and resulting risks. This is where the development and use of a safety checklist comes in. First, the safety checklist serves as a map to help teachers and their supervisors navigate through safer waters. Second, the checklist also functions as a legal document illustrating an intent to work in a safer teaching/learning environment. It exemplifies an effort in good faith to help establish and maintain a safer working environment for teachers and students.
Most school districts are regulated by either the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (in private schools) or an approved state plan OSHA (in public schools). Some public schools are also regulated under state departments of labor in lieu of an approved state plan OSHA. If a school district is directly regulated under OSHA’s Laboratory Standard and Hazard Communications Standard, there are fundamental elements that should be represented on the checklist for inspection. In addition, some better professional safety practices exist, which all schools should consider in earnest as essential components of a safety checklist. Ultimately, any items that will improve safety in the teaching/learning environment meet the qualifications for inclusion on the checklist.
General safety elements are appropriate in all middle and high schools. Additional specific safety elements must address the needs of science and STEM laboratories. Special equipment usually requires special safety elements for proper operation and maintenance. Science/STEM supervisors and teachers must make sure all laboratories, preparation rooms, and storerooms are inventoried for safety hazards and appropriate safety actions to reduce or eliminate those hazards.
The following laboratory inspection checklist candidates represent important components that address most situations in middle and high school science and STEM laboratories. In no way does this list represent all elements unique to every science laboratory: It is a starting point from which additional components can be added and tailored to individual laboratory situations. For example, the hazards and resulting risks in a physics lab differ significantly from those in a biotech lab. The safety inspection checklist must reflect not only the common items in these labs, but also the different specialized items.
The sample safety checklist components include the following: General Health and Safety Program, Personal Protective Equipment, Flammable and Combustible Materials, Walking/Working Surfaces, Hand and Power Tool Use, HazCom, and Laboratory Standard.
Examples of checklists that schools may find beneficial for STEM labs can be found at this National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2004-101/default.html. (See Chapter 4 for the specific checklists.)
1. Does the worksite have a current health and safety program that deals with general health and safety elements, as well as management of potential hazards and resulting risk specific to your worksite?
2. Is there a safety officer and/or chemical hygiene officer directly responsible for developing and overseeing all components of the health and safety program?
3. Is there a safety committee or group composed of administrators and employee representatives that meets regularly and reports in writing on its activities to all employees?
4. Is there a written procedure in place for addressing employee health and safety issues?
5. Are science/STEM laboratories secure? (e.g., door is locked when no adult supervisor is in the lab)
6. Are emergency phone numbers and the plan posted next to a phone?
7. Are power strips secured off the floor and away from liquids?
8. Are extension cords only present for immediate use and do not pose trip/fall or electrical hazards?
9. Are the extension cords disconnected at the end of the workday?
1. Do employers assess workplace activities to determine if potential hazards and resulting risks require the use of PPE (for example, head, eye, face, hand, or foot protection)?
2. If potential hazards are identified, are employers selecting and having affected employees use properly fitted PPE suitable for protection from the hazards?
3. Are protective indirectly vented chemical splash goggles or safety glasses with side shields as appropriate meeting the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) Z87.1 D3 standard provided and worn where any potential danger of biological, chemical, or physical hazards exists?
4. In working environments that have harmful exposures, are employees who need corrective lenses (glasses or contacts) required to wear only approved safety glasses with side shields or protective indirectly vented chemical splash goggles, or use other medically approved PPE?
5. Are protective gloves, aprons, shields, or other means provided and required where employees could be cut or where there is reasonably anticipated exposure to corrosive liquids, chemicals, blood, or other potentially infectious materials? See 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910.1030(b) for the definition of “other potentially infectious materials.”
6. Are all protective equipment cleaning and sanitizing/disinfecting procedures in place and is equipment maintained in a sanitary condition and ready for use?
7. Are eyewash and quick drench shower engineering controls within the work areas where employees are exposed to potentially injurious biological, chemical, or physical hazards? For additional information, see ANSI/ISEA Eyewash Z358.1-2014 with In-Depth Compliance Guide—Current 2020 at
1. Are approved containers and tanks with the correct labels used for the storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids?
2. Do storage rooms for flammable and combustible liquids have explosion-proof lights?
3. Do storage rooms for flammable and combustible liquids have continuous mechanical or gravity ventilation?
4. Are fire extinguishers selected and provided for the types of materials in areas where they are to be used? For example,
5. Are appropriate fire extinguishers mounted within 75 feet of outside areas containing flammable liquids, and within 10 feet of any inside storage areas for such materials?
6. Are extinguishers free from obstructions or blockage?
7. Are all extinguishers serviced, maintained, and tagged at intervals not to exceed 1 year?
8. Are all extinguishers fully charged and in their designated places?
9. Are accesses to exits unrestricted?
10. Is a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire diamond posted on the exterior of an entrance door to where hazardous chemicals are stored?
11. Is the storage clearance from the ceiling 18 inches with sprinklers; 24 inches if no sprinklers are available?
1. Are all worksites clean, sanitary, and orderly?
2. Are work surfaces kept dry, or is appropriate means taken to ensure the surfaces are slip-resistant?
3. Are all spilled hazardous materials or liquids, including blood and other potentially infectious materials, cleaned up immediately and according to proper procedures?
4. Is all regulated waste, as defined in the OSHA bloodborne pathogens standard (1910.1030), discarded according to federal, state, and local regulations?
5. Are aisles and passageways kept clear (3-feet minimum)?
6. Are walkways free of trip/fall and slip/fall hazards?
7. Are work and storage areas clear of clutter? (e.g., appropriate housekeeping)
1. Is hand and power tool training provided for staff and students?
2. Are tools secured (locked up) when not in use and under direct adult supervision?
3. Are tools inspected regularly and removed or labeled “out of service” if found to be damaged?
4. Are tools disconnected and de-energized when not in use, before servicing and cleaning them, and when changing accessories such as blades, bits, and cutters?
5. Are power tool operators in a clearly defined and marked work zone, keeping all people not involved with the work at a safe distance from the work area?
6. Are exposed moving parts of power tools safeguarded using properly working guards provided by the manufacturer? (e.g., belts, gears, shafts, pulleys, sprockets, spindles, drums, flywheels, chains, or other reciprocating, rotating, or moving parts of equipment)
7. Are employees/students who use electric tools protected by ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) or an assured equipment-grounding conductor program?
8. Are employees/students who are using electrical equipment working in a dry area (no water/moisture for electrical shock or slip/fall hazards), and is there appropriate ventilation and PPE used as required for that task (eye/face protection, dust mask, ear protection, apron, appropriate types of gloves, etc.)?
1. Is there an up-to-date inventory of hazardous substances used in the workplace?
2. Is there a written hazard communication program dealing with Safety Data Sheets (SDS), labeling, and employee training? Online systems also can be used, but a written HazCom plan must also be available for employees.
3. Is each container for a hazardous substance (i.e., vats, bottles, storage tanks, etc.) labeled with product identity and a hazard warning (communication of the specific health hazards and physical hazards)?
4. Is there an SDS readily available for each hazardous substance used?
5. Is there an employee training program for hazardous substances?
6. Does this program include
7. Are employees trained in the following?
8. Is spill control equipment (neutralizers, absorbent pads) readily available?
9. Is shelving secured to walls and chemical containers in good condition (no leaks, rust, etc.)?
10. Do refrigerators have appropriate signage? (e.g., “Chemicals/biologicals only” or “Food for human consumption only”)
1. Is there an up-to-date chemical hygiene plan (CHP)?
2. Is there a chemical hygiene officer (CHO) assigned?
3. Are there Standard Operating Procedures listed and followed in the CHP based on legal safety standards and better professional safety practices?
4. Are there criteria for implementing specific controls?
5. Are fume hoods free of clutter and stored chemicals, glassware, etc.?
6. Is there annual testing and certification of fume hoods by a certified inspector?
7. Is there direct access to safety information and annual safety training requirements?
8. Are there laboratory operations that require approval of the employer and/or CHO?
9. Are there provisions for medical consultation and exams? Is there a first-aid kit in the lab? Has the employee been trained on how to use the kit, and what is the school district’s policy on providing first aid in the event of an emergency?
10. Is appropriate safety signage in place? (e.g., exit, eyewash, shower, master shutoff, etc.)
11. Are the eyewash and shower easily accessed?
12. Are the safety shower and eyewash station accessible within 10 seconds?
Initiate a laboratory safety inspection by reviewing and answering questions on the checklist as they apply to your laboratory. This will not only provide an assessment, but also give direction as to where work needs to be done for a safer teaching/learning environment. Be sure to share the results of the inspection with the administration to make sure all safety issues are addressed. If safety issues exist that make teaching/learning activities unsafe resulting from exposure to potential hazards and resulting risks, lab activities and/or demonstrations must be temporarily stopped. If not, and someone gets hurt, both the teacher and the administration have potential serious liability.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration—https://www.osha.gov
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at email@example.com. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.
Safety Blog Acknowledgement: NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank Dr. Tyler S. Love, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Elementary/Middle Grades STEM Education and Director of the Capital Area Institute for Mathematics and Science (CAIMS) at The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary.