Teaching Science: Liability and You!
I. Safety Issues in Doing Science!
So here I am at my first teaching assignment in a rural school district several decades ago. This was long before OSHA had the HazCom or Lab Safety Standard. Long before there was access to Internet resources and oh yes- need I say using slide rules? Even though the principal assigned me a study hall for my first science lab (no sink, one electrical outlet, no eye protection, etc.), he expected me to carry out a chemistry curriculum including lab activities. Being new and naïve but very excited about teaching science, I enthusiastically embraced and did the deed. Then something happen. One day I was preparing diluted sulfuric acid from concentrated acid for a lab activity. My lack of appropriate safety training surfaced quickly. Remember that AAAW approach to diluting acids – Always Add Acid to Water? I had never heard of it in all my years of academic preparation and did the reverse. The glass cylinder I was using shattered from the sky-rocketing increase in temperature as I added the water to the acid. I had my acid baptism resulting with huge burn holes in my clothing and skin. Not being totally clueless, I did have on safety goggles that saved my sight. It was at that point that I realized how poorly I had been trained in safety and had nightmares for a while about having done this in front of students and blinding them or myself. Fast forward over the decades I became a missionary on safety in trying to reach out to innocent neophyte and veteran science teachers about making their classrooms safer. Here I am decades later serving as the Chief Science Safety Compliance Adviser for the National Science Teachers Association. My mission has not changed! We have made much progress but we have many more miles or kilometers to go relative to raising teacher and administrator awareness of increasing lab safety and keeping both out of harm’s way relative to legal issues.
As we all know, research and general educational practice clearly indicates that students learn science best by doing it – not just reading about it. Hands-on, process and inquiry based science is the key to understanding science. Unfortunately, this is a double edged sword for science teachers in that doing science has its potential hazards and resulting risks. Unfortunately, I found that out the hard way as I noted. Science laboratories, classrooms and field work sites can be unsafe places to teach and learn. If a student gets hurt while doing an activity in the lab, in the field or even at home if it was a teacher’s assignment, there is potential shared liability for both the teacher and the school. This would occur if legal initiatives were undertaken by the parents or guardians of an injured student. Most science teachers believe they would be held harmless when it comes to these types of law suits. Unfortunately, in most instances, teachers will be exempt from held harmless laws or statutes when it comes to their failure to meet “duty of care.”
II. Getting a Handle on Hazards/Risks!
If a student gets injured doing a science laboratory activity, there are potential legal implications for the science teacher and school as previously noted. How can teachers and school administrators better protect themselves from student/employee injuries and litigation? One great resource is the National Science Teachers Association’s Safety Advisory Board’s safety issue paper titled Liability of Science Educators for Laboratory Safety. In the Introduction of the paper, it notes the following about “duty of care:”
“The breach of a particular duty owed to a student or others may lead to liability for both the teacher and the school district that employs that teacher” (Ryan 2001). As such, science educators must act as a reasonably prudent person would in providing and maintaining a safe learning environment for their students.”1
The message here is science teachers and administrators must maintain safer working environments at all times for students. In efforts to help science teachers and administrators address this issue, the position paper contains a section titled Declarations. The following are a few areas noted and summarized that teachers and administrators should embrace to help keep students, the teacher and the school out of harm’s way when doing science activities:
- Develop and implement comprehensive safety policies with clear procedures for engaging in lab activities. These safety policies should comply with all applicable government health and safety codes, regulations, ordinances, and other rules established by the applicable oversight organization.
- Ensure that all safety policies, including those related to safety training, are reviewed and updated annually in consultation with school or district science educators.
- Support and encourage the use of laboratory investigations in science instruction, and share the responsibility with teachers to develop and fully integrate these activities into the science curriculum.
- Become knowledgeable of and enforce all legal codes and regulations to ensure a safer learning environment for students and educators. Particular attention should be given to means of hazard prevention, including reasonable class sizes to prevent overcrowding in violation of occupancy load codes or contrary to safety research; replacement or repair of inadequate or defective equipment; adequate number or size of labs, or proper facility design; and the proper use, storage, disposal, or recycling of chemicals.
- Understand that the number of occupants allowed in the laboratory must be set at a safe level based on available legal standards, size and design of the laboratory teaching facility, chemical/physical/biological hazards, and students’ needs. Require teachers to develop, maintain, and implement chemical safety plans.
- Support teachers of science by obtaining materials and resources from government sources and professional organizations that will inform and educate teachers about safe laboratory activities, safety procedures, and best practices in the teaching of laboratory-based science instruction.
- Review existing insurance policies to ensure adequate liability insurance coverage for laboratory-based science instruction.
- Provide teachers with sustained, comprehensive training in lab logistics—including setup, safety, management of materials and equipment, and assessment of student practices—at the time of initial assignment and before being assigned to a new exposure situation. This includes storage, use, and disposal of materials and chemicals; use of personal protective equipment; engineering controls; and proper administrative procedures. To ensure ongoing safety, annual training should be provided to keep teachers well informed about changes in safety procedures.
- Support the decisions of teachers to modify or alter activities in a safe manner or select safe alternative activities to perform in the science classroom/laboratory.
- Maintain adequately supplied, properly equipped, and safe facilities for performing lab instruction by conducting annual facilities audits.
- The safety issue paper lists other means of providing for a safer learning site relative to initiatives on the part of the school administration and governing body.
In addition to this critical resource for science teachers and administrators, the NSTA Safety Portal2 has other essential safety issue papers for consideration. The titles include:
- Eye Protection and Safer Practices FAQ
- Safer Handling of Alcohol in the Laboratory
- Tips for the Safer Handling of Microorganisms in the School Science Laboratory (PDF
- Managing Your Chemical Inventory (PDF)
- Part 1
- Part 2
- Part 3
- Field Trip Safety (PDF)
- Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (PDF)
- Duty or Standard of Care (PDF)
- Overcrowding in the Instructional Space (PDF)
- Safety in the Science Classroom, Laboratory, or Field Sites (PDF)
- Safety Acknowledgment Form for Working with Microorganisms (PDF)
- YouTube and Other Public Posting of Science Demonstration Videos (PDF).
III. In The End!
Remember as a science teacher, you not only have the duty to instruct students to learn science, but also duty of care to make sure it is safer for students to do the science activities. Prepare for a safer experience by doing a hazards analysis, a resulting risks assessment and the safety actions needed. Also remember to continuously monitor/adjust for safety to keep all out of harm’s way and the court room!
Two final notes – If you are as concerned as I am about making it safer for yourself and your students, please join me as the NSTA Safety Blogger at: http://nstacommunities.org/blog/2016/06/13/welcome-to-the-nsta-safety-blog/. It is a free subscription and also provides my monthly commentary on safety. The best part is you can ask any questions on safety in the lab or field to which I personally answer.
The second note is I tweet once a day – 5 days a week – on the latest current information about science lab safety – new regulations, incidents, lawsuit, and much more. Join me at Twitter@drroysafersci.
Have a safer day!!
Dr. Ken Roy
Director of Environmental Health & Chemical Safety
Glastonbury Public Schools (CT-USA);
Chief Science Safety Compliance Adviser/Safety Blogger
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA);
Safety Compliance Officer
National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA);
Safety Committee Member/Chair Emeritus
International Council of Associations for Science Education (ICASE)
1 - Liability of Science Educators for Laboratory Safety; Position Paper, National Science Teachers Association, Arlington, Virginia, United States of America: http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/liability.aspx (accessed 8/4/17).
2 - National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Safety Portal: http://www.nsta.org/safety/. (accessed 8/4/17).
Note: The photo represents poor chemical management - Using a fume hood for chemical storage. - unacceptable and an OSHA violation that can result in a fine.