Safety in the School Laboratory

In a school laboratory, there is generally only one teacher, with a decent-sized classroom of students grouped into pairs of two. Multiple things are happening at once: students have questions, students messed up what they were doing, the teacher needs to deal with something outside of the classroom, or a fight occurs. In these conditions, unfortunately, accidents can happen extremely quickly. One second, your classroom will be perfectly fine, and the next, it’s utter chaos. Worst yet, almost all accidents could have easily been prevented. Here are some basic laboratory rules that should always be followed.

1. Wear the proper protective gear. And by that I mean safety glasses, disposable gloves and a lab coat. Even if you argue that the activity won’t involve anything that could possibly hurt the students’ eyes or stain their clothes or burn them, play it safe. You would be amazed at how students turn the safest of experiments into a disaster.

2. Long hair should be tied back with an elastic. Otherwise, burning can quickly occur, or dangerous chemicals can get into the untied strands. If the hair is long enough that it CAN be tied back, then it should be. Always keep a package of dollar store hair elastics in the classroom, just in case. Don’t suppose that just because nothing can actually damage the hair or set it on fire that there’s no reason to tie it back. Students, especially teenage girls, have a knack of panicking whenever anything gets into their hair, and panicking in a laboratory usually results in something going wrong.

3. Students should understand how to properly observe their experiments. Teach students to sniff chemicals by holding their noses away and wafting the scent towards them with their hands, not sticking their noses in the bottle and getting a good whiff. Students should also be taught to never taste anything, and to only touch parts of the experiment if given explicit permission, and if gloves are worn at all times.

4. Nobody should be sitting down in a laboratory. Even if a student tells you that they’re just sitting down to write their observations, it doesn’t matter. If you can, take all chairs or stools out of the lab before class starts. Students sitting down can easily spill things onto their laps, while when they’re standing they have a better chance of jumping out of the way. Even if there’s no possibility of anything being spilled, don’t let the students sit down. Get them into the habit of standing whenever there is a lab.

5. There shouldn’t be any yelling, running, or rough play when in a lab. Though this is obvious, students are quick to forget how practical and basic this rule is. Many times during an experiment, there is “down time”, where various things are left to simmer or cool down, or they are to wait for further instructions. It’s usually during this time that students will start to fool around and forget that they’re in a lab setting, where anything can be knocked over or broken. If your students have trouble remembering this rule, don’t assign labs where there’s a moment where they’re not occupied. Make sure that the lab is designed so that both partners constantly have something to do, even if it’s just taking notes of observations.

6. If something breaks, students must immediately report it to the teacher, who should clear the area and clean the mess. Any broken glass should be disposed with great care, and the janitor should be told that there is broken glass in the garbage can. If your students break something, and it was a mistake, don’t under any circumstances get angry, yell at them, make them feel guilty or embarrass them. This will make it so that students hide it when things get broken, and this could result in very serious accidents. If the students broke something because of improper behaviour, take them aside and kindly and patiently explain to them that their actions won’t be tolerated, and a repeat offense will result in their being banned from this lab. If they continue, don’t relent; ask them to leave the classroom, and don’t allow them to resume the lab at a later date. A low grade because of their breaking the rules will make sure they never do this again.

7. During the very first day of class, point out to students where all of the basics are such as fire blankets, fire extinguishers, exit doors, sinks, windows, first aid kits, and anything else your lab is equipped with. If there are any chemicals in the classroom, or ways that the students can turn on or off the gas, point this out as well. On the actual day of a lab, repeat these things again. Don’t be afraid to briefly go over them every time there is a lab. Explain to students what to do in the case of various emergencies, and pick a student who will be in charge of contacting the office in case something goes wrong and you can’t. Pick an extra student who will take over this responsibility if the other one is absent that day.

8. Experiments should never be left unattended. At least one partner should always be carefully supervising any experiments, no matter how “low risk” they seem to be. If you find students going off to chat with others in the classroom, either try to make it so these students can work together, therefore keeping up conversation while working and supervising the experiment, or figure out if the students are talking because they’re bored and there isn’t enough work to do. If you notice students going to others and asking for help repeatedly, stay close by and ask if you can be of assistance.

9. Ties, baggy sleeves, long earrings, and other loose or dangling accessories should not be permitted. Keep extra shirts on hand in case students are wearing clothes that are not appropriate for the lab. Ask students to remove any ties, long earrings, or other problematic accessories.

10. When heating substances in a tube, students should never point the opening of the tube towards themselves or other students. When a group has reached a stage where substances are heated, or a reaction is about to take place in the experiment, try to keep your eye on this group in particular, and stay nearby.

11. Food and drinks should never be permitted in the lab under any circumstances, including bottled water. If students are thirsty, allow them to go to their lockers and drink their water there.

12. Workspaces should always be immaculately clean. Students should only be allowed to bring their pencils, pens, erasers, notebooks, and any other material that is absolutely necessary, such as calculators, rulers or textbooks. Warn students two to three days in advance of a lab, and remind them the day before, so they know not to bring anything else to class. If a student has a special need, such as needing to keep a glucometer on hand at all times, tell the students to come talk to you ahead of time.

13. Hands should be washed thoroughly with hot water and soap before leaving the classroom, regardless of whether or not students were wearing gloves, or the nature of the experiment.

If all of these rules are followed, the amount of accidents that occur in class should be reduced considerably. While some might seem a bit excessive or strict, remember that accidents always happen very quickly in a classroom, and it doesn’t take long for students to panic or deal with the problem incorrectly. This is your safety and the safety of your students on the line, so don’t take any chances. Labs should be fun and educational, not dangerous or lethal. Above all else, be a good example. Follow these rules very carefully, and make sure to never leave the classroom unless absolutely essential.