Are lab accidents at schools preventable?

| January 17, 2014

A chemical accident at Beacon High School, New York in which two students were injured during a lab demonstration, has stirred up a debate on whether lab accidents at schools are preventable. Tenth grader Alonzo Yanes, one of the injured students, suffered second-degree burns on his face, neck, and arm while the other student suffered first degree burns, CBS New York reports.

The high school has been slapped with eight safety violations by the New York Fire Department that include lack of chemical fume hood, safety shower, eyewash station, and storage of toxic chemicals in excess of the permissible limit. Daniel Horowitz, Managing Director of U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), has asked teachers to practice precautions while handling chemicals in laboratories.

Lab Safety During Experiment Demonstration

Use PPE such as safety glasses while working with chemicals. [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Chemical accidents at school are not new

In a similar incident in 2006, Calais Weber, 15, suffered third-degree burns when her chemistry teacher made a bad call while demonstrating an experiment.  Forty percent of Calais’ body was burned in the chemical explosion. She endured painful treatments for two and a half months and underwent numerous surgeries, including facial skin grafts.

Just weeks before the Beacon High School incident, the CSB released a safety video ‘After The Rainbow’, featuring Calais describing the entire accident. However, it didn’t reach Beacon High School teachers because the state’s science education officials were not among the 60,000 subscribers of the Chemical Safety Board’s messages.

In the video, survivor Calais admits many things went wrong and that the accident was “entirely preventable” if certain safety practices had been followed. The Chemical Safety Board has reported at least seven similar accidents including Calais’.

Lab accidents: Who’s to blame?

Safety loopholes observed at the Beacon High School are widespread in American schools. Safety experts are calling the incident “the tip of an iceberg” as it has opened debate on the larger issue of safety negligence in science classrooms.

James A. Kaufman, founder and president of Laboratory Safety Institute in Massachusetts, brings attention to the fact that seven states in the U.S., including New York do not make lab safety education compulsory for science teacher certification. Surveys in 17 other states found an average of 55-65 percent of teachers have never been trained in safety. Many teachers kept chemicals beyond their expiration date and stored them alphabetically while they should be arranged by their chemical type.

School labs are at a higher risk than industries

There are no exact numbers that reveal the frequency of accidents in academic labs because lab injuries and fatalities are not required to be reported to any central database. But, Kaufman notes that schools witness 10 to 100 times more lab accidents than chemical industries. In the last 30 years, the Laboratory of Safety Institute has found 5,000 school lab accidents that have caused serious injuries or even casualties.

Also, lab accidents at school have risen since schools started following the new teaching standards. According to Jack Gerlovich, science safety professor at Drake University, 674 accidents took place from 1990 through 1993 school years in Iowa, but more than 1,000 occurred in the following three years. Gerlovich believes, “The increase came after Iowa schools began adopting an early version of the new standards. The number of lawsuits soared, too, from 96 to 245.” He suspects the same thing is happening in other states too. School labs don’t undergo inspections from state or federal safety authorities for workplace safety issues, and while teachers are protected under the workplace laws, students are not covered by the same.

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