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Safety in science class: A wake-up call

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By Alexandra Hehlen

Sometimes the best way to learn about science is  through labs. These scientific experiments conducted during class typically reinforce a lesson that students recently learned. 

With labs comes safety, and during the first week of school every year, for each science class, students watch videos that teach them the proper precautions they must take to keep them and their classmates safe. 

Yet, as second semester and then the end of the school year approach, students will find that adherence to safety procedures tends to be put on the backburner or becomes a bit lax, which could result in students feeling potentially vulnerable when they do labs.

A survey was recently conducted to find out how students feel when doing labs in their science classes. Forty percent of students felt that conditions in labs were very safe, while 30 percent found them safe and 22 percent said that they were satisfactory. 

Students that took the survey also reported how safe they felt, with 58 percent saying that they only felt comfortable rather than very safe, which 42 percent had claimed to be.

These figures may not seem astounding and they do not seem to do an injustice to safety procedures, but they do indicate that students would feel safer with more safety precautions in place.

Although many people reported that conditions were very safe, feedback was received contrary to that notion. One person said, “Hair is never up during labs with chemicals and no one wears their goggles.” Another student commented, “Sometimes instructions are unclear.” 

A large portion of students remarked that they felt unsafe because of the students around them who did not adhere to precautions. “The real danger here is the students, not the conditions,” one student said. 

“I feel the teachers keep it as safe as possible, but immature people don’t take things seriously which puts everyone at risk,” another commented. And yet another said, “During labs, other kids scare me when the teacher won’t control them.”

Not adhering to safety procedures can have serious consequences. One student noted, “I burned by eyebrows with a Bunsen burner.” Another stated, “One time I burnt my finger with acid,” while another student remarked that she had spilled a base all over her foot. It failed to do any damage, but the thought of spilling any chemical on oneself is frightening, especially if the chemical is hazardous.

Even as many students reported feeling very safe, many worries have been voiced aloud during labs in both middle and high school. 

How safe does using Dremel tools without safety glasses sound? How about touching lead with bare fingers, while rubbing it with sand paper? 

Releasing lead particles into the air makes it easy for students to inhale them, which is the leading cause of lead poisoning. Some labs are conducted in a hurry and end just after class lets out. 

Teens rushing to their next class often forget to wash their hands, don’t have time to, or are not reminded by teachers to do so. 

Toxic residue on hands can easily get onto the face, in hair and food. Students have also claimed to witness others as they balance wooden rods vertically on a table, while trying to saw the rods in half from the top.  

Students who have dissected frogs, will most likely not forget the choice they were given.

They could use the same pair of gloves all week or using no gloves at all. Many of them chose the latter option and it was not a pleasant experience for them. 

One reason for not using gloves in lab is because they tend to run big and thus can cause students’ hands to slip on beakers. However, protecting one’s skin from harmful chemicals would seemingly outweigh this. 

Also, there are non-latex gloves that can be purchased for students allergic to latex. Some teachers are hesitant to buy gloves due to expenses. Parents are encouraged to buy boxes of tissues for the classroom, so it would seem that perhaps they wouldn’t mind buying a box of gloves, if it means keeping their child safe.

Many students, when handling dangerous materials, often fail to recognize hazards and therefore think they are safe when they really are not. Thus, the survey results should be interpreted with caution.

Some scientists working in Los Alamos may be shocked by the relaxed rules during labs. 

One solution to the problem would be constant reiteration by teachers of the safety rules prior to each lab; allowing no horseplay whatsoever; making sure that all students wear goggles and aprons; using gloves when handling toxic elements substances; dealing with those substances carefully to avoid poisoning; and forcing students to wash their hands after each lab with proper soap. 

 In following these rules, students and teachers alike will work in a safer environment, enhancing a learning experience in a safe setting.