Reimagining Lab Safety

The beginning of every year in a school lab traditionally consists of a didactic read aloud from a handout on lab safety. Sure, the teacher can pepper the language with a bit of levity but in the end, it’s still a set of rules that students will memorize long enough to pass the requisite safety quiz to get into the lab. The teachers and students know of the importance but this doesn’t stop the fact that it is viewed as an impetus in getting to the lab and doing experiments. At Acera, we removed the teacher led aspects of the safety aspect to give the students more ownership of the rules of the lab. After all, they will be the ones using it and they are the ones that are the most unfamiliar with the ways of laboratory research. This made the process significantly more interesting, entertaining, and useful in giving students a groundwork in lab safety.

Our first day of training consisted of the development of a set of lab norms. To do this, the teacher simply asked what rules should be followed while in lab that are not standard for the classroom. Sample dialogue included:

Teacher: What is a good rule to have in lab?
Student: Don’t eat lab chemicals!
Teacher: Why is that a good one?
Student: Because they could be dangerous.

Given that most every student will ask about putting lab chemicals in their mouth, the students must obviously know why they can’t eat potentially hazardous chemicals. It is also important to ask the students why a certain rule is in place so that the consequences are clear.

After the rules discussion, we performed an interactive safety demonstration. With guidance from the teacher, the students acted out what to do in case of chemical fires, fire blanket, chemical burns on skin, eye wash and emergency shower use (which included activating both of those), spills, glove removal, the NFPA diamond and proper chemical handling, and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). By bringing in the student to demonstrate, they get to touch and use the equipment but in a non-emergency manner. This helps them to use their bodies to perform the actions and gain familiarity with the motions required to use the equipment.

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Given that ours is a K-8 school, we have a school set of safety levels for experiments that go from 1 (least hazardous) to 5 (most hazardous). Experiments at each stage have different safety considerations and students should show respect and maintain safety for everything we do even if it simply involves kitchen chemicals. After establishing the lab norms and all the safety practices, the students were then tasked with making a creative project on the safety levels and the considerations of each level. Some students made posters, puppet shows, and skits, both filmed and animated. This helped to create a more organic feel to the training and enabled them to be creative and to capture these “rules” and adhere them to their own personalities in a simulated lab situation. In addition, since many of these activities demonstrated what not to do, they experienced firsthand through fictional demos the results of veering away from the lab norms.

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Finally, the students took a safety assessment that they all must have scored a 100% on to take part in lab activities. The students will of course allowed retakes until they reach that goal. After achieving the perfect score, the students were then given a duplicate safety contract for both student and guardian to sign.

Feedback from the process has been very positive from the students and despite it being “safety training,” they learned and had fun doing it. They were able to gain a working knowledge of the lab and will be prepared for unexpected events. Ensuring that the students are comfortable and prepared is the first step in enabling some fascinating science in all of unpredictability and move away from the cookbook labs that are standard in K-12 science education.

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