Science teachers need to know the necessary actions to take in the event of a medical emergency. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) provide insight on this issue by means of workplace regulations and standards.
OSHA first aid standard
The OSHA 29 CFR 1910.151 Subpart K Medical and First Aid standard requires the employer to have medical personnel who can administer first aid and are available for advice and consultation. In school settings, this is usually the school nurse. There must be first aid supplies available at the site. In situations where a person’s eyes or body may be exposed to corrosive materials, OSHA notes that facilities for quick drenching or flushing of eyes and body (e.g., eyewash and safety shower) must be available.
Although OSHA does not require first aid training for employees who have medical personnel on or near the site, first aid training is essential for science teachers. Science teachers and supervisors must have some training with drenching or flushing equipment. Use of eyewash and acid showers should be annually reviewed as part of the first aid training of all science teachers and supervisors.
The first few minutes following a safety incident are critical, so science teachers need to respond to the situation even before medical responders arrive. Moreover, the victim of a lab accident may seek legal action should a teacher provide first aid without training or fail to provide first aid, so science teachers should request formal first aid training from their employers.
Dealing with emergencies
The following list describes examples of lab safety incidents that require first aid training for science teachers.
• Burns. Heat-producing equipment (including Bunsen burners, matches, and hotplates) and chemical and electrical sources can cause burns. Should that happen, immediately soak the burned area in cold water and request immediate assistance from the school’s healthcare provider.
• Chemical exposure. With the increased emphasis on hands-on, process, and inquiry-based science, chemical exposure is more likely to happen inside the classroom. Review the Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for each hazardous chemical being used prior to any laboratory work. If someone is exposed to the chemical, immediately use the eyewash or acid shower, as appropriate, and flush with copious amounts of tepid water for a minimum of 15 minutes. Request immediate assistance from the school’s health care provider.
• Poisons. Accidental swallowing of poisonous chemicals in the laboratory either by direct sources or cross contamination can happen. Review SDSs with students prior to use of these chemicals, so they all are familiar with their potential harm to the body. If the person becomes unconscious or is convulsing, request immediate assistance from the school’s healthcare provider. The same is true should the person complain of a “burning feeling” in their throat, but also provide plenty of water or milk in this situation. The teacher should give the student the drink, preferably outside the lab, to help prevent cross contamination via toxin residue in the lab. Call the Poison Control Center (1-800-2221222), too, especially if you know what poison has been accidentally taken.
• Sharp objects. Sharp objects such as a ring stand rod, dowel, or stick can be hazardous. Do not remove the object from one’s skin. Try to keep the individual calm and still. Request immediate assistance from the school’s health care provider.
• Lacerations and bleeding. Broken glassware or other sharp objects can cause lacerations. If an injured person starts bleeding, put on latex or NIOSH-approved plastic gloves and apply direct pressure to control bleeding. Request immediate assistance from the school’s healthcare provider.
• Allergic reactions. Given the high frequency of allergens in labs, teachers should ask parents and guardians to identify any known allergens prior to activities. Also, secure input from the school nurse on each student. For serious allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), see if the individual has an epinephrine auto injector and help them use it, if needed. Turn them on their side if they are vomiting or bleeding. Raise their feet about 12 inches and cover them with a blanket. Make sure their clothing is loose so they can breathe. Call 911 immediately. Request immediate assistance from the school’s healthcare provider.
• Amputations. With the use of power and hand tools in STEM labs and physics labs, there is a risk of amputations. Request immediate assistance from the school’s healthcare provider and call 911. Try to stop the bleeding in the interim by having the person lay down and elevating the part that is bleeding. Apply steady direct pressure using gloves. Check and treat for shock. For details on administering first aid to treat for shock and what to do with an amputated body part, read information provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
First aid kits
OSHA does not provide a mandatory list of contents but suggests that employers follow the basic list of first aid kit contents available from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI Z 308.1-1978). Included in the list are large and small sterile bandages, adhesive tape, antibiotic cream, antiseptic solution, scissors, eyewash, and cotton balls and swabs.
In the end
First aid training is needed in science laboratories. Teachers need to make sure their administrators provide this training each year. This blog post is only a starting point. Teachers need to secure formal input from medical personnel for the proper response to each incident.
I would like to thank Jane Megson, district head nurse at Glastonbury Public Schools in Glastonbury, Connecticut, for her review and contribution to this blog commentary.