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Classroom Lab Safety: Protecting Yourself from Liabilityby Anne Wallingford
The best way to protect yourself from lawsuits is by instructing students in the proper use of materials and equipment, and by carefully supervising experiments. But sometimes, accidents do happen.
I am not a lawyer, and this article is by no means a legal defense, but hopefully you will come away with a few ideas about how to protect yourself in our litigious society.
In studying liability and negligence case, the courts consider four aspects. First, is duty clearly defined? Teachers are required by law to supervise their classrooms; this is recognized as a legal duty. Warning students about possible dangers is part of this duty. By law, both written and verbal warnings are required.
Second, there has to be a breach of duty for negligence or liability to be proven. If the teacher fails to warn students of dangers, there has been a breach of duty.
Third, there must be actual injury of loss as a result of the breach of duty. If the teacher's action (or failure to act) causes injury or loss, then the chance of liability is much greater.
Finally, there must be a direct cause and effect relationship between the teacher's behavior and the student's injury. Was the teacher providing adequate supervision at the time of the accident? Did the teacher establish clearly defined safety procedures? Were potential hazards fully explained, both in writing and verbally?
It is the teacher's responsibility to maintain lab safety. Chemicals and equipment must be properly stored in locked areas. Expired chemicals must be disposed of properly.
It is the school's responsibility to maintain adequate facilities. Lab work needs to be done in a lab facility, not in a regular classroom. The school is obligated to provide safe equipment and adequate facilities.
It is the teacher's responsibility to provide safety instructions for equipment, experiments, biologicals, chemicals, etc. Written safety checklists, documented safety exams, safety signs, repeated verbal instructions are the teacher's best protection against lawsuits.
Protective clothingsafety goggles, gloves, aprons or lab coats, and closed shoesare mandated wear in most states. It is the school's responsibility to provide the protective gear, but it is the teacher's responsibility to enforce wearing of the protective clothing.
The Lab Safety Checklist, below, is one way that can help keep you and your students safe. Feel free to add anything you think is important, then make copies and distribute to staff and students. Although this checklist is meant primarily for the teacher, I would distribute the first part of the checklist to students before the start of an experiment so that everyone can check their own work area. Designated students would check common areas such as the sink and equipment. The instructor would use the third part of the checklist as a self-reminder. Experiments would not start until the check was completed. Initially it would take 15 min. to do a pre-experiment safety check, but once the check became routine it could be done in three minutes. The final part of the checklist is for the instructor to complete at the end of class. Students quickly learned that safety was important and that no experiment would begin until the safety check was finished.
Student's Signature ________________________________
_____ The workbench area is clean.
_____ The workbench is dry.
_____ The workbench and surrounding area is free of paper.
_____ The floor around the workbench is clear; there are no book bags, papers, or other items on the floor.
_____ There are no more than four (4) students at a workbench.
_____ Protective clothing is being worn.
_____ All instructions have been read before lab work begins.
_____ Specific safety/health hazards have been reviewed before beginning lab work.
_____ Chemicals are clearly labeled.
_____ The sink is free of debris.
_____ The sink is unclogged and the drain works.
_____ Faucets work and water is shut off.
_____ Hand soap is accessible. (Liquid soap is better than bar soap.)
_____ Glassware detergent is accessible.
_____ Fire extinguisher is clearly visible and operational.
_____ Eyewash station is clean and operational.
_____ Fume hood is clean and operational.
_____ Electrical equipment is operational; there are no frayed cords.
_____ First aid kit is equipped and readily accessible.
_____ Gas burners are properly connected.
_____ Proper disposal containers are at hand.
_____ Emergency information and phone numbers are clearly posted.
_____ Students have been instructed in use of the lab equipment.
_____ Students remain at their own workstations, while working, and do not walk around the lab.
_____ Students leave the lab area when work is completed.
_____ Students never work alone.
_____ Students are never left unsupervised in the lab.
_____ Students work quietly and remain seated, whenever possible, when working.
_____ There is no unauthorized use of equipment.
_____ Accidents are properly recorded in an accident log. *
_____ Equipment is cleaned after use.
_____ Drain board for drying racks is clean and dry.
_____ Missing or damaged equipment has been reported.
_____ Safety goggles have been sterilized.
_____ Flammables and corrosives are properly stored in locked and labeled cabinets.
* For more information on this and other topics, please read the other safety articles posted on The Science Tool Box.
© 2004 Anne Wallingford. All rights reserved.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009