There is a myth in education that both school administrations and students believe. They believe that because their science, art and engineering faculty went to school for a long time, the faculty will know about lab safety and will make sure that students are not harmed. In many cases, both administrators and students are sorely mistaken. As president of Lab Safety Institute1 (LSI) I am actively engaged in debunking this myth.
In the ’70s a survey (origin unknown) was conducted on state departments of education. The departments were asked whether their state required written verification of a teacher’s knowledge of laboratory safety for certification. Twenty-four replied “no” and twenty-six did not reply — in other words, zero required written verification. This sorry state of affairs was further reflected in the higher frequency of lab accidents in school, college and university science labs than industry. LSI estimated the frequency to be 10 to 100 times greater than in the chemical industry. This estimate was based on anecdotal accounts and private conversations with school faculty and administrators.
Recently LSI repeated this study to determine if in the last 40 years, states had begun to require teachers to be trained in safety in order to be certified. The Council of State Science Supervisors (CSSS) was asked: “Does your state have a written requirement that science teachers must know anything about laboratory safety to become certified?”
The response from the CSSS:
Only eight out of 57 States and Territories (12%) have a written requirement that a person must know something about lab safety to become a certified science teacher in their jurisdiction.
States requiring lab safety teacher certification are Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Utah. No specific course is mandated in these states, rather the safety requirements are incorporated in the teacher preparation programs in a variety of ways. Three states — Maryland, Nebraska and South Carolina — recommend lab safety teaching certification. The state-by-state requirements and recommendations can be found in my LSI five-page report.2
Clearly this is an improvement over zero. However, 42 states and 7 territories have not yet mandated that their science teachers must know anything about lab safety to be certified. LSI hopes that this report2 will encourage some thoughtful discussion and lead to the other states taking action. The “Next Generation” of science teachers must be more knowledgeable about the fundamentals of lab safety and how to create more effective lab safety programs. They must learn to identify hazards and know how to protect students, the environment and themselves.
At its simplest, science teachers must be able to answer four questions before performing demonstrations, conducting experiments, encouraging inquiry and exploring nature:
- What are the hazards?
- What are the worst things that could happen?
- What do I need to do to be prepared?
- What are the prudent practices, protective facilities and protective equipment needed to minimize the risk?
For its part, the LSI continues several initiatives to improve health and safety in science education. We offer schools complimentary copies — where appropriate — of Model Chemical Hygiene Plan1 and LSI’s “Laboratory Safety Guidelines”. LSI tries to provide resources, teacher friendly course pricing and scholarships. Complimentary LSI lab safety courses are provided to CSSS members every five years.
LSI is working on two newly proposed LSI initiatives:
- The creation of a certification exam covering what every new high school science teacher should know about lab safety. The exam could be used by state certification organizations and/or teacher preparation institutions.
- The publication of a book, “1001 Questions: What every High School Science Teacher should know about Lab Safety”.
In the next issue of Chem 13 News, more information will be given about this 1001 Questions initiative. Chem 13 News readers will be invited to submit safety questions.
The LSI website has more information about LSI and its programs and services.
References and notes
- The Laboratory Safety Institute is an international nonprofit education organization for laboratory safety. LSI provides high quality laboratory safety training, audits, inspections and consultation services throughout the world.
- Laboratory Safety and Teacher Certification report http://www.labsafetyinstitute.org/FreeDocs/LaboratorySafetyandTeacherCertification.pdf