Unlike science teachers, non-science educators have little to no training in hazard analysis, risk assessment, or safety-related issues. As a result, non-science employees, such as teachers of other subjects or special education and paraprofessionals, need to learn about the duty or standard of care before entering the science classroom or lab. Otherwise science teachers could be liable should the non-science professionals or students become injured in the science lab.
A safer working environment
There are a number of legal safety standards and better professional safety practices that apply to both students and any school employee working in a science laboratory. To begin, many OSHA safety standards are applicable to employees working in science labs or any other area where there are potentially hazardous chemicals. For example, according to OSHA, the purpose of the Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200 (HCS) is “to ensure that the hazards of all chemicals produced or imported are evaluated and details regarding their hazards are transmitted to employers and employees.”
Few administrators or supervisors in school follow the basic principles of the HazCom Standard. They fail to transmit the chemical hazard details via formal staff training. In other words, non-science teachers assigned to science labs lack the awareness and understanding of chemical hazards and resulting risks present in the science lab. Hazards can arise in the classroom even if the non-science teacher does not directly work with the chemicals. For example, a non-science professional might not be prepared if a bottle of alcohol or acid inadvertently smashed and splashed a laboratory occupant. Another example is a gas leak. A science educator would know where to locate the master gas shutoff, but a math teacher might need assistance due to a lack of training.
Many OSHA standards also provide rules that protect workers in laboratories from chemical, biological, physical, and safety hazards. For example, there can be potential exposures to electrical hazards resulting from faulty electrical equipment/instrumentation or wiring, damaged receptacles and connectors, or unsafe work practices. Students off-task playing with electrical sources could potentially receive electrical shock or even worse – electrocution!
Finally, Non-science professionals should also learn about the OSHA general duty clause. Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. With the known potential hazards in the science lab and no other standard applies to the particular hazard, the general duty clause can apply when the employer’s own employees are exposed to the alleged hazard. All the following elements are necessary for OSHA to prove a general duty clause violation:
• The employer fails to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which its employees were exposed.
• The hazard was recognized.
• The hazard was likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
• There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
In the end
A non-science who works in a science lab is a recognized hazard that could potentially cause serious physical harm to occupants. Without appropriate safety training, there is shared liability for the science teacher responsible for the science lab, the non-science teacher instructing a non-science class in the lab and the administrators if that non-science employee or their students get hurt in science lab. Teachers need to share this information in writing with their administrators/supervisors should the situation arise.