Safer Science Labs

A Manhattan jury recently awarded nearly $60 million in damages to a former Beacon High School student who was badly burned by a teacher’s botched chemistry experiment more than five years ago. The student suffered third-degree burns over 30% of his body, including his face, neck, arms, and hand. This happened when his teacher accidentally ignited a fireball during a “Rainbow Experiment” to show the colored flames produced by various salts. The teacher seemingly ignored many safety protocols while performing the experiment, including pouring highly flammable methanol directly from a gallon jug instead of using a beaker and pipette to dispense it. During the flame jetting of the methanol from the jug, students were seated too close to the demonstration and were burned. This took place in a classroom without a ventilated hood to remove fumes. Several safety deficiencies have often been identified in lab accident reports and warnings for this type of lab demo over several decades:

• students sitting too close to the demonstration;
• limited, inappropriate, or no personal protective equipment in use;
• no safety shield present or fume hood use;
• alcohol stock bottles sometimes used to refill hot ceramic dishes or surfaces;
• limited or non-existent teacher training in the hazards and risks of using flammable liquids with resultant safety actions.

RAMPing up safety

One approach to help prevent these types of safety incidents involves the active use of four principles of safety fostered by the American Chemical Society: Recognize hazards, Assess risks of hazards, Minimize risks of hazards, and Prepare for emergencies. Using the RAMP process allows teachers working in academic labs to help minimize risks and protect students from serious injuries. Unfortunately, if the first step of recognizing and understanding hazards is not successful, risk of hazard assessment may faulter.

A recent issue ACS Journal of Chemical Health & Safety (May/June 2019, Volume 26, Number 3) had a feature article titled “Recognizing and understanding hazards – The key first step to safety.” The author, Robert H. Hill Jr., presents an analysis of several incidents and illustrates how in most cases, if not all, the teacher lacks understanding of the hazards and in effect cripples the RAMP process, resulting in a safety incident. For example, he noted how the teacher in one case did not understand the properties of flammable liquids in high concentrations of flammable vapor above the liquid.

ACS has a video for students about RAMP and a video for teachers about RAMP.

The AAA method

A similar approach encouraged by the NSTA Safety Advisory Board is the AAA (Analysis, Assessment and Action) process for “driving home” safety involving a hazard Analysis, risk Assessment, and appropriate safety Action. It addresses the need of doing a full hazard analysis as the first step.

To located the hazards for a lab or demo, one reliable source is the Safety Data Sheets: Section 2—Hazard(s) identification: All hazards regarding the chemical and required label elements. Other sources include inquiring with fellow colleagues, checking out the NSTA safety portal, the NSTA safety alert and the ACS safety alert.

Once hazards are analyzed, the associated risks can be assessed. For example, if the chemical is flammable and vapor builds up, a flash fire and jetting flame can be effected. The risk in this case includes extreme heat and active flame exposure for observers. Lastly, determine the appropriate safety actions that should be taken as precautions, given the hazards and resulting risks. In the case of the Rainbow demonstration, the safer action is an alternative demo eliminating the use of the flammable methanol. This can be done by dissolving the salts in water, soaking a wooden applicator stick in the solution, and running it over an active Bunsen Burner flame.

In the end

Whether RAMP or AAA is used, one thing is clear: Most safety incidents can be avoided if done in a safer way using one of these two hazard analysis approaches. Once employed at science teachers, too many schools don’t follow up with initial or annual safety training for science teachers—that is, until an accident occurs and there is a lawsuit like the one mentioned above. Stay safe. Don’t destroy a student’s life or your own.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at safersci@gmail.com or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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