The Royal Society of Chemistry became increasingly frustrated in 2004 when academics (the “when I was a lad” variety”), National Tabloids (it’s “‘elf un safety gone mad” variety), and many teachers were quoting health & safety fears as the reasons not to do practical science work and demonstrations. The RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) asked CLEAPSS (a national advisory body supporting the teaching of practical science) to produce a report that I helped to write. This is an open document, so please read it.
I was moved to share this with ChemEd X readers because at the 2014 Biennial Conference of Chemical Education (held at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA) an American teacher said that she was not allowed to carry out a Whoosh Bottle and many other classic demonstrations. Of course when I asked for the qualifications of the people who demanded this ban, she did not know but I suspect a degree in law was their main qualification.
When it comes to spectacular demonstrations, there are dangers. The USA has had a serious burning case in Manhattan caused by methanol. (Other similar cases have been reported in the USA as well.) We had a similar incident in the UK.
What we try to do at CLEAPSS and SSERC in Scotland is write a full risk assessment for a dangerous procedure. So does that mean we say to wear eye protection and similar suggestions? No; risk assessment means we look not only at the hazards of the chemicals used and the products but more importantly we examine the procedure involving amounts, suitable equipment, correct PPE and if necessary, positioning of the students in the room. We then advise that everything should be rehearsed with others present such as the Head of Department (HOD) or school science technician (sorry but we are lucky to have these while most USA schools do not). We also advise the teacher to examine the suitability of the room and their experience and the reason for the demonstration. We will then write out a procedure that includes the control measures we have identified in risk assessment. Teachers are required to phone us if they want to deviate at all.
As an organization, our hearts will sink next term when schools will phone our Helpline (we get 6000 enquires per year) and ask us for assistance preparing for an open house when prospective parents and their children come to the school for the evening. This is a typical sort of discussion over the phone:
Teacher - “Can we use liquid nitrogen in schools? We saw it being used in a Royal Institution video.”
CLEAPSS - “Yes; I hope you have read the details in our Handbook and on our Hazards.”
Teacher - “Err. Where can we get liquid nitrogen from?”
CLEAPSS - “Why do you want liquid nitrogen?”
Teacher - “The Head teacher wants us to put on a show for open evening next week.”
CLEAPSS - “Well where do you usually get it from and have any of you used it before?”
Teacher - “Errrrr”
CLEAPSS - “So you are going to show parents something you do not show existing pupils. Is that appropriate? You are going to need to buy the correct Dewar (cost over £200). No a thermos flask is really dangerous. You will need to store the 25-litre container from the supplier in a well ventilated room. It will be gone in a few days and, with all the paraphernalia, it is going to cost you quite a bit. And you need to practice what you want to do. Have you got time? Someone in a neighboring school might have experience.”
When serious incidents (not accidents) occur, the blame game then ensues. Under our (UK) laws it is the employer that has responsibility for the safety of the staff and students. The employer may delegate the health and safety decisions to a Head of Department (and it is our remit at CLEAPSS to assist both the employer and the HOD in this function) but the employer should monitor that these duties are being carried out and working. That might be a manager who deals with safety issues but the safety officer (SO) should not instruct the HOD who has practical experience that the SO does not have, in how experiments are performed. That is why we at CLEAPSS often get phone calls on these conflicts. The teachers involved in a serious incident are usually devastated at these events. But in most cases over the past 20 years that have gone to prosecution it has been the employer who has had to appear before the court. Insurance and civil action may ensue but we hear very little of these cases. This is why teachers should always have Union membership. But that may be a red rag to a bull in the USA.
What caused the previously cited UK case incident? A “can you do it again, please” request from a student was entertained by the instructor. An invisible, heavy vapor of methanol from the previous experiment had spread all over the table and ignited when the instructor tried to perform the experiment again. Health & Safety Executive issued an improvement order on the school. I was asked to examine the stores as a part of this to ensure they were safe and secure. The staff had to undergo further safety training that we provided.
PS: Oh by the way, the method used was from a website. You can find many demonstrations in written form and on video that include the use of flammables published online with no safety information.