Keeping Science Safe

Guest Post by LaMoine L. Motz, PhD, Sandra West Moody, PhD, and James T. Biehle, AIA

The cover article “Science on Wheels” in the April 2013 issue of NSTA Reports raises a number of issues which, in our opinion, fly in the face of good judgment. While we recognize there are many schools with inadequate science teaching facilities, using unsafe practices to provide science spaces can be a lawsuit waiting to happen. Recent research reveals how widespread the problem of “floating” science teachers is with more than 1,000 Texas science teachers reporting they have to teach off of a cart (Kennedy, L. and West, S., 2013).
In the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, 2nd Edition (hereinafter NSTA Guide), we discuss a number of safety issues which, if not corrected, can lead to accidents and lawsuits. A particularly egregious example of such a safety issue is described in “Science on Wheels” where a teacher states that “mostly what we had to move on a cart were just solutions.” The NSTA Guide mentions just such an activity on page 42 in describing some of the impacts of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on science facilities and instruction. There are numerous reports of cart accidents including cart wheels sticking in a shallow doorway threshold resulting in the cart stopping and a glass jug of acid falling off which produced toxic fumes and students running around corners into and knocking the cart over, subsequently breaking jars of chemicals and equipment. (Laboratory Safety Institute, 2013)
On pages 41 and 42 of the NSTA Guide, under a discussion of tort law, the situation in the schools mentioned in “Science on Wheels” could readily be defined as “misfeasance” (a principal assigning a science class to a non-science classroom), “nonfeasance” (failure to provide an adequate number of science laboratory/classrooms, and “malfeasance” (forcing an employee to assume an unnecessary risk or use unsafe methods.


Billboard near Detroit

As often emphasized in our “Planning and Designing School Science Facilities“ workshops and seminars at NSTA regional and national conferences, and also numerous state conferences, the person who will know about this article (“Science on Wheels”) in the case of a lawsuit resulting from such patently unsafe practices is the plaintiff’s attorney.  NSTA President–Elect Juliana Texley, a former superintendent, describes working with an architect who had no idea of what it was like during class changes in a middle school. The architect was instructed to stand on one tile in the middle of the corridor as classes changed and nearly got swept away. We believe it is a mistake for the NSTA Reports to suggest that it would be safe to move “solutions” around the halls from room to room on a cart.
Science teachers and students are at risk whether the teacher moves from one science room to another science room or is required to teach in non-science rooms. The greater risk is, of course, for science students to have to do science activities in a non-science room lacking required safety equipment such as eyewashes. When a room is used for laboratory activities, it becomes a “science laboratory” and is subject to fire code occupancy load requirements.

Movable teacher’s demo table

Further, leaving science materials in a non-science classroom, supervised primarily by a teacher not trained in safe science instruction, is an invitation to further lawsuits due to students and, possibly, teachers being injured as they move, or otherwise deal with science equipment and materials left in, say, an English classroom. Leaving science materials in a room with a non-science trained teacher is extremely unsafe.
The prep room concept described at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School sounds like a further invitation to a lawsuit if there is not a door which can be locked. Prep rooms must be off limits to students, protected by lockable doors. It is possible to design lockable mobile tables that will fit through a standard 36” wide door but having a large opening into the classroom will invite curious students to explore an area they should not enter.
Some suggest we should recognize that many science teachers are in the same predicament discussed in the NSTA Reports article and we should propose ways to teach science more safely when adequate science teaching facilities are not available. However, we strongly believe that it is not possible to safely teach an effective science program in a general purpose classroom as virtually all such classrooms are unequipped with even the basic safety equipment such as a fire blanket and fire extinguisher. In visiting more than 450 schools, nationally, almost none have a sink, and we have yet to see a safety shower or even portable eyewash in a general purpose classroom. We believe it is our responsibility to emphasize that safe science can only be taught in a properly equipped science classroom and that the practice of using general purpose classrooms for science and transporting chemicals and equipment from room to room, as described in “Science on Wheels,” should be strongly discouraged to district patrons, school boards, administrators, architects and facilities directors.
Constructing an adequate number of safe, spacious and well-equipped science lab/classrooms and appropriately located and designed science storage facilities should be seen as an investment in the future. The alternative is to take the approach discussed in “Science on Wheels” which can result in spending a significant amount of money defending unnecessary lawsuits instead of providing a safe science learning environment.


Motz, L., Biehle, J., and West, S. (2007). NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, 2nd Edition. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.
Kennedy, L & West, S. 2013.  Safety in Texas secondary science classrooms: 1990-2007.Proceedings of the 116th. Annual Meeting of the Texas Academy of Science, Kerrville, TX p .42
Laboratory Safety Institute, 2003. Learning by Accident, Natick, MA

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3 Responses to Keeping Science Safe

  1. Debra Shapiro says:

    “Science on Wheels” was a news article, reporting on a trend.

  2. Debra Shapiro says:

    The article reported on teachers’ experiences teaching from a cart. Unlike a journal article, it was not a “how-to” piece and therefore did not encourage unsafe practices.

  3. Debra Shapiro says:

    Teachers, you could advocate for your students’ safety by presenting a copy of “Science on Wheels” and a hard copy of this blog post with your administrators and any other relevant parties.

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