The Safety Component in Lab Renovations and New Construction


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.
NSTA resources and safety issue papers
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5 Responses to The Safety Component in Lab Renovations and New Construction

  1. Maryann Graziano says:

    We are looking into making cabinets for our flammables, acids, bases. Do we need to have it certified to certain specs? How difficult is the certification process? Are we better off purchasing pre-made cabinets already certified? Does anyone have experience with this process? Thank you.

  2. Dr. Ken says:

    Dr. Ken’s response to Maryann Graziano’s inquiry –
    Maryann – another great question. This is my take based on experience I have had with new and renovation construction for science labs – It all depends on your state or local fire codes, and OSHA or state dept of labor overseeing these issues. Most follow the NFPA 30. I would urge you to check out this site for specific information about flammables and their storage:
    As for OSHA – check out this Grainger site – CHEMICAL STORAGE COMPATIBILITY GUIDELINES:
    Also check this one out – OSHA Letter of interpretations: Question: Can I store flammable and corrosive chemicals in the same storage cabinet?
    Reply: Yes, assuming that the chemicals are being stored in accordance with the manufacturers’ requirements, in approved containers, and inside an approved storage cabinet. You should refer to the chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for specific storage requirements.
    Bottom-line to your question – less hassle purchasing commercial chemical storage cabinet. If you want the on-site non-commercial ones – make sure the fire marshal is in the loop for approval and also check out the specs on the sites I provided.
    Other readers may also have suggestions.
    Thanks again,
    Dr. Ken

  3. Chris says:

    Interesting point!

  4. Sandra West says:

    I’d add a couple of suggestions.
    – See the “NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities”
    – Space. Additional space is rarely added, so design for adequate space (then add more) initially. See the guidelines in the NSTA book (above).
    – Flexibility. Fixed furniture in the middle of the room limits flexibility in instruction.
    – Administrators, district construction supervisors & architects need to see science in action to understand how form should follow function & how facilities can inhibit effective instruction.

  5. Kenneth Roy says:

    Dr. Ken’s reply to Dr. Sandra West’s suggestions –
    Dr. West – great suggestions! The last one about administrators, architects, etc. needing to get into the trenches to see science in action and have a better understanding of how effective instruction results in part from having a well designed facility – so very important but often neglected!
    Thanks as always – Dr. Ken

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