By Hussain Bokhari ’15
In the wake of a faulty chemistry experiment leaving two Beacon High School students with life threatening injuries two months ago, safety in the lab has become am unrelenting issue.
According to the New York Times, on January 2, 2014, sophomores Alanzo Yanes and Julia Saltonstall were under instruction of teacher Anna Poole during a rather entertaining “rainbow experiment.” A safer version of the experiment, involving colorful ionic flames, is also conducted in our school and most chemistry lab courses. The tables turned violently when highly combustible materials ignited in an unsafe technique, creating an injurious explosion.
Although our school has had no violations over the past three years, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the dangers posed by similar experiments remain troublesome. According to the Daily News, on January 3, 2014, 15 people were injured as a result of the same color changing flames experiment in American high schools within the last two years. Beacon High School continues to be questioned for failing to provide the “science room” with emergency systems.
The FDNY cited the award-winning high school with a total of eight safety violations following the unfortunate accident, putting the principal of the school on the hot seat for now. A few included better storage of chemicals, the reduction of hazardous ones, emphasis on safety equipment, and the installation of eye washers and showers. Even with these precautions, however, high school labs in the United States continue to be about 10 to 100 times more dangerous than industrial labs, with 150 injuries in the past four years, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. It’s alarming figures and gruesome tales like these that signify the importance of action.
Increasing the number of high school inspections would be one appropriate action that local governments can take. For instance, “Local Law No. 60” in New York City, enacted in 2009, requires full building inspections of every public school once a year. Four architects and engineers are required to write a report on the structural, electrical, and mechanical conditions of the schools. Last year’s inspection of our school showed no clear violations, according to the School Construction Authority. However, the NYCDOE Science Safety Manual, one of whose authors in 2008 was our principal Mr. Michael McDonnell, clearly states that “lab specialists” are responsible for inspecting science labs. This is why enhanced efforts made on public schools would not be relevant as long as lab teachers practiced offhand inspections and unsafe procedures.
The National Science Teachers Association, a non-profit organization that trains science teachers on lab safety, holds a catalog of instructions including the safe handling of alcohol. An interesting issue it raises is whether alcohol related experiments should be conducted in k-12 schools since so many teachers fail to safely conduct them. It is obvious that safety training for teachers is not sufficient enough and should be more thorough. Yet, what remains more vital to safety than the supervision of teachers and schools is the seriousness of students themselves.
“A teacher in a school lab is the only adult there and should be responsible for any mishaps,” said Mohammad Naqvi ’16.
The same mentality that results in students not taking fire drills seriously is what makes safety equipment in school labs seem unimportant to them. Even after the “safety lesson” at the beginning of each chemistry and physics lab term, a majority of students continue to fail to recognize that safety equipment can spare students from harm. The role of public schools should not only be making their labs a safe haven, but properly educating students on the vulnerability to injury. Currently a safety lesson is given before labs begin, and students must complete a quiz on the material, but even if a student fails the quiz, he is allowed to do the labs. The Connecticut State Department of Education, for instance, offers a mandatory safety course to all science students complete with regulations and videos.
In addition, instruction manuals must not be ambiguous, as most high school science manuals do not specify in what situations equipment must be worn.
“A safety course at least a week long would definitely teach students how to act responsibly in a lab,” said Karen Cai ’14.
Mistakes in the laboratory are bound to happen, but teachers and students can learn from them and help prevent recurrences. The simple truth that an elite science school can be the victim of a lab accident shows that high schools in New York and all over the country must take safety seriously. Spending more on safety courses, guaranteeing the training of lab teachers, and ensuring that emergency systems work properly are just some of the reparations necessary to make the high school laboratory a harmless place.