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The Safety Component in Lab Renovations and New Construction

By Kenneth Roy

Posted on 2018-06-08


As states continue to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards and STEM curricula programs, science teachers will be asked to engage students in a way that requires specific lab facilities. The demands of three-dimensional teaching could mean that you will need to renovate your existing lab, or construct new facilities. Science teachers and their supervisors must work with administrators to ensure that the facilities meet the needs of current teaching and learning, future curriculum endeavors, and safety concerns.

The following list summarizes the phases of lab construction/renovation and discusses the role of the staff in the construction process.

1. Getting started: Architects first need to understand how the lab facility will meet the needs of a curriculum. The teaching staff must therefore develop educational specifications based on their curricular needs (such as laboratory size, lab furniture layout, and engineering controls) to help the architects understand the type of teaching and learning that will take place in the lab. Note: This phase needs to be finalized before the school applies for a bond for the laboratory because the teacher’s instructional needs will inform the building plans and specifications.

2. Visiting another lab: Science teachers and their supervisors should visit other schools that have completed new construction or made renovations to labs within the last five years. This way staff can learn what works and what doesn’t in their facility design.

3. Planning: It’s important to establish a planning committee consisting of teachers, the administration, architects, engineers, and more. The planning process not only involves the physical structure but also furnishings, equipment, and labware. Equally important are the engineering controls for safety such as proper ventilation, an eyewash station, showers, sinks, fire extinguishers, and goggle sanitizers. Occupancy load issues should also be addressed based on the NFPA Life Safety Code 101. Ideally, the lab’s maximum student occupancy should not exceed 24 students. Finally, it is important that labs address the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. The lab, for instance, must follow certain height and width dimensions that allow students with special needs to access eyewash controls, lab desks, and other means.

4. Construction: After finalizing a building plan, put together a construction team involving administrators, teachers, architects, contractors, and a fire marshal. This team should meet weekly to make decisions on issues as they develop, often involving a change in work orders specified on the original contract. Yet, the change in a work order might not alter the original contract amount or completion date. For example, if a chemical storeroom turns out to be too small to meet the needs of its inventory, a change order could require altering the dimensions of the floor plan. Science teachers and their supervisors should also visit the site during this phase to make sure things such as locations of fume hoods, eyewashes, storage cabinets, and sinks are where they need to be.

5. Final inspections: A Certificate of Occupancy is the final approval stage by which the town allows the school to take over the new construction or renovated facility. Prior to its issuance, teachers and their supervisors should tour the new facility. This allows teachers to make any corrections to the building design. Once the Certificate of Occupancy is approved, it is very difficult to make changes and can be cost prohibitive. So it’s important to get it right the first time!

Final thought

For further recommendations on constructing, renovating, and addressing safety in school science labs, check out Safer Makerspaces, Science Laboratory Safety Manual, Third Edition, and NSTA Guide to Planning School Facilities, Second Edition.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.
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