A solid understanding of lab safety practices is essential for our students to carry out practical work in the laboratory. Students love completing practical work and can learn a great deal from hands on activities. It's an effective way to teach the principle of scientific inquiry, develop student skills in measurement and observation, and to motivate and engage students, but safety must always come first. A good first step is ensuring that any practical activities are properly and thoroughly risk-assessed by the educator before the activity takes place. Educators should do the experiment or demonstration first before the lesson to understand any risks. Seek advice from colleagues; if they have done a similar practical before they will be aware of any points of potential danger.
When doing the practical work, make a list of any equipment or activities that could be potentially dangerous and start to think about how you can make it safer for your students. There are a number of strategies and pieces of equipment that can be used to reduce potential harm to students. If there aren’t any strategies that can sufficiently reduce this risk, then you shouldn’t allow students to complete the activity. Alternatively, lead the practical as a demonstration, use a computer simulation, or show a video. There are several strategies and ideas you can use with students to help them take more of an active role in managing their safety and the safety of others both inside and outside the lab. It is important to get students used to being good, careful, safe scientists even before they enter the lab. Students should never enter a lab without a member of staff present. Students should be aware of themselves and each other at all times. The best way to do this is to introduce lab safety in fun and engaging ways!
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A good place to start with lab safety is with a set of lab rules. These rules will be different from lab to lab, but there are a few rules that are universal. Often these lab rules are covered at the beginning of the school year, and then either forgotten or not properly understood by students.
These rules should be revisited throughout the school year, paying particular attention to any that are relevant to the lab activity you are doing. Using Storyboard That, you can quickly and easily have your students created a visual set of lab rules. Visual lab rules can also help students whose first language isn’t English. These visual rules can be easily modified and redesigned for a specific lab or activity.
"Spot the Hazard" can be used as a starter activity early in the year. Using this storyboard, or one you have created, have your students identify the places in the picture where there is a potential hazard. Students can start to think about spotting and managing hazards in the lab and it is a great stimulus for a class discussion about lab safety. There are many potential activities that can be completed after doing this exercise with your students. You can have them create a set of visual lab rules based on the hazards they’ve spotted. Alternatively, they could edit the hazards out of the storyboard, showing a lab free of bad practice. You can even have your students create a storyboard of their own with two cells: one cell showing an unsafe lab and one showing a safe lab.
Personal protective equipment is any equipment that is designed to protect your body from injury. This equipment includes clothing, shoes, eye protection, hearing protection, and respirators. Not all PPE is needed for every activity in the lab, but it is important the PPE matches the activity students are completing. Students should understand the different types of equipment commonly used, and they should also understand how and when to use them.
Eye protection should be worn by all people, including teachers and teacher’s assistants, when required. They should be used whenever students are working with hazardous procedures. Teachers need to ensure they fit properly and that they are worn over the eyes and not around the neck or on the forehead. Eye protection should be worn when using any chemicals which would cause damage if they reached the eyes or if the experiment uses any springs or wires under tension.
Noise can also be dangerous for students. The volume of the sound and the length of time students are exposed to the sound both need to be taken into account when preparing a practical. If the noise is above the recommended guidelines, then ear protectors should be used. If noise exceeds these levels, hearing damage can occur, including tinnitus or even deafness.
Gloves provide hands with protection from a range of different hazards. The correct type of glove needs to be matched to the potential hazards. For example, heat-resistance gloves can reduce the chance of burning your skin from hot objects. Heat resistant gloves also reduce your dexterity as they are often thick, so this is something to think about when choosing your PPE.
To protect clothing and skin, lab coats or aprons can be used. Lab coats are very often made of a material that is resistant to corrosion. As with all the other PPE, it is important the the lab coat or apron is the right size for the user. If they are too long, this can cause a tripping hazard. Long trailing sleeves can also be dangerous because they can knock things over or get dipped in potentially dangerous liquids.
Storyboard That can be used to teach students about the various pieces of PPE and when they should be used. Give students an example or have your students make a T-Chart and have them identify pieces of PPE needed for different procedures.
It is never too early to get students thinking about risks and ways to manage them. Students can use Storyboard That to organize their ideas about potentials risks associated with an activity and ways to reduce that risk. This can be extremely helpful as well when students begin to design their own experiments.
In the lab, students will sometimes use potentially harmful substances. One way of reducing the risk, especially when using acids and bases, is by diluting them. It is important that students can interpret chemical labels in order to understand the risk and know what precautions to put in place. When deciding on the chemicals to use in the lab, read guidance on the potential risks associated with them. If the chemical is not safe to use with your students, don’t use it. There is an international system of identifying hazards associated with different chemicals.
|Explosive||The substance could explode and is unstable|
|Flammable||The substance can easily set alight|
|Oxidizing||The substance can provide oxygen to a fuel during combustion|
|Corrosive||The substance is corrosive and it could cause skin burns and damage to eyes|
|Toxic||The substance is fatal or harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or comes in contact with the skin|
|Hazardous to the Environment||The substance is a danger to life in the environment, and could mean that the substance is dangerous to aquatic life|
|Health Hazard||The substance can cause irritation and sensitivity on or in the body|
|Serious Health Hazard||The substance is a serious risk to health, including chronic health effects such as cancer|
|Gas Under Pressure||A gas or dissolved gas is being kept at pressure. This doesn’t mean the gas itself is dangerous, but even normally safe gases come with risks when pressurized|
One great way to get students familiar with safety and procedures in the science lab is to have them create lab safety posters to hang in the classroom. Assign students a different topic to create a poster about, whether it's a rule or a hazard symbol. They can then create a poster that visualizes what the rule or symbol is and why it's important.
However it might be more practical for you as the teacher to create the posters for your classroom ahead of time and use them as teaching aids. You can check out our lab safety poster templates, which make it easy for you to customize your posters! It also makes it easier to have the most up to date information, because you can always come back and edit your posters and print new ones.
Discussion storyboards can be a great stimulus for discussion of all areas of science, including lab safety. It allows you to dispel any potential misconceptions students may have before they begin their practical work. For more information including different ways to use discussion storyboards in the classroom, check out the article on Science Discussion Storyboards.
Additional lab safety advice can be found with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) or the ACS (American Chemical Society). Please be aware that health and safety rules, regulations, and good practice are constantly being updated and change regularly.
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