Whether you’re instructing elementary school students in basic chemistry or helping high school students dilute hydrochloric acid, safety should always be the number one concern. By implementing some basic rules and guidelines, students should always know how to prevent potentially dangerous accidents from occurring. However, even the most prepared scientists make mistakes, and when that happens, it is imperative that both the students and the supervisor know how to react if a mishap occurs.
The first step in preventing accidents is proper equipment. Students should always be fully protected, and if there is not enough equipment for everyone, you should not allow any students to perform labs without taking proper safety precautions.
Lab coats or aprons are essential if you plan on dealing with any chemicals. Many chemicals are dangerous if they come into contact with human skin. Do not assume that long sleeve shirts will be enough, as many chemicals will simply seep through the fabric.
The skin is not the only place that can be easily damaged if exposed to certain chemicals. Students should also wear face-fitting eye goggles, so that any splashes do not have the potential to blind a student. After labs have been completed, students should placed used goggles in a receptacle, so that they may be thoroughly washed before the next use. This helps prevent any bacteria from students or chemicals to be transferred among the student population.
If an experiment involves large quantities of a highly dangerous substance (such as undiluted hydrochloric acid), the only person who should be handling the substance should be the teacher or the lab technician. Once the substance is diluted into smaller, less dangerous portions, you may permit the students to work with the chemical in question. It is simply in the best interests of both the students and the educator to prevent any large-scale mistakes by inexperienced chemists.
Once the students are outfitted with proper safety equipment and any needed chemicals have been sufficiently diluted, it is time to lay down the basic ground rules for working in the lab.
1) The only chemicals or pieces of equipment that should be in use are ones that are part of the current lab. Using other chemicals can result in potentially dangerous reactions, and should never be attempted without the explicit consent of the teacher or supervisor.
2) Students (or teachers for that matter) should not eat or drink in the lab. This has the dual purpose of not risking chemical contamination, as well as keeping the lab relatively clean and tidy.
3) Do not ingest any chemicals. Take care not to breath in the air surrounding any reactions, and do not drink anything that is involved in a lab. If you must test the scent of a chemical, you should make sure that the technique known as “wafting” is standard. Wafting is the process by which instead of taking giant sniffs to test smell, you cup your hand and move the air towards your face that you wish to smell. This is much safer in that you don’t have large quantities of chemicals lining your nostrils.
One of the most important safety aspects of a lab is cleanliness. If a laboratory becomes dirty, the risk for cross-contamination becomes greater. Before and after a lab, the students should clean and tidy their workspace. The teacher should make paper towels, water and other basic cleaning supplies, so that prep and clean-up are quickly, yet efficiently done. Remember, you cannot expose students to unnecessary risk, and that risk is easily mitigated by keeping a clean and sanitary lab.
When you are cleaning equipment, carefully rinse the equipment (assuming it is not electrical), and make sure that all residual chemicals have been washed down with plenty of water. In fact, making sure that your students know how to properly clean their materials can save both time on the teacher’s part, as well as instill a sense of responsibility in the student. They will do a good job if they know that someone could be harmed because of a shoddy or hastily done cleaning job.
Unfortunately, not all accidents can be prevented. Because of this, it is imperative that proper emergency equipment is readily available. Having an emergency eyewash station, a fire extinguisher, and first aid kit can help prevent bad situations from getting worse. Students should be aware of how to use such equipment, and they should know how to react when an accident occurs.
By being knowledgeable about the equipment and chemicals one is using, the potential for personal harm is greatly reduced. Using proper safety equipment and following basic ground rules can make most labs perfectly harmless. However, that is not a license to let one’s guard down, and the teacher should know exactly what to do in the event of an emergency. Working in a lab is a fun and practical way to learn. but neither of these objectives should come before the safety of a student.