Kenneth Roy, the science safety expert with the National Science Teachers Association in Virginia, knows a few things about chemicals and experiments that are performed in many of the nation's public schools.
Following a devastating chemical fire at Wilson Middle School on Wednesday where two students were seriously injured, Roy said it was important to note that, like at any laboratory, there is no such thing as a safe school lab.
“You can make the labs safer, but there is no safe lab because you’re dealing with chemicals,” Roy said.
The well-known science safety expert, who often writes safety columns that deal with chemicals, said all chemicals are hazardous, but can be used safely if teachers and students are properly trained to control hazardous characteristics while using them.
“There are two strands at work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration laboratory standard and the legal standard,” Roy said.
The Carlisle Area School District, as the employer, is required to have a chemical hygiene plan to make the science laboratory safer, something that should be spelled out for teachers in a written document, Roy said.
Everyone is responsible, including students, teachers, supervisors and higher administrators, and all of them must work together to ensure that teachers and students use and handle chemicals with appropriate care and precaution, Roy said.
ABC27 News reported that the fire was caused, in part, by the use of rubbing alcohol.
Roy said it was likely that rubbing alcohol was involved.
“I suspect with burns (being the result) that it is possibly alcohol,” Roy said. “It is a very common chemical that is used. It is used at home, but when you bring alcohol into a lab and there are vapors present, it could cause an explosion.”
Pennsylvania is one of a few states that requires a chemical hygiene plan where teachers are taught OSHA-related lab standards of protection.
“There are legal standards dealing with biological uses of micros and other chemicals and the employer trains employees to help make it safer to work in labs,” Roy said. “There is also the professional best practices standards in which the National Science Teachers Association puts out that addresses occupancy loads, procedures and how to dispose of or handle chemicals.”
The NSTA addresses all of those issues on its website, Roy said.
Today, middle schools have moved much more toward the use of so-called green approaches, whereas five to 10 years ago, there would have been much more hazardous chemicals, he said.
“There is training that goes on, regional conferences and national conferences, which we’ve held in Pennsylvania,” Roy said.
The conferences represent good professional exchanges and online courses are available for teachers, he said.
“In middle schools in Pennsylvania, especially for new teachers, there is training that most colleges and universities don’t do. The school district does them,” Roy said. “Those who don’t should be doing it because you’re protecting the student and the teacher. This way, the lab can be made safer.”