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Starting a School Year Safely

By Mark W. Meszaros, Ph.D.
Vice President, Carolina Biological Supply Company

Science teachers have additional responsibilities that may not apply to other teachers. Hands-on activities with chemicals, living specimens, or scientific equipment may create hazards for students in science classrooms. To set the stage for a safe and successful school year, address potential hazards at the beginning.

Safety in the science classroom is a shared responsibility between the administration, teachers, and students. The administration must provide a safe learning environment, which includes classrooms and laboratories that have adequate space for hands-on learning. Administrators must also ensure that proper laboratory and safety equipment is present and in good working order. Teachers have a clear “Duty of Care” and must provide adequate instruction and supervision based on the situation, setting, and maturity of the students. Teachers must identify any risks or hazards present and then explain and demonstrate proper procedures and techniques to reduce the risks. Teachers must also set clear rules and enforce them. Finally, students must follow all rules and regulations, come to class prepared, and work safely. Students must understand that their individual actions may endanger not only themselves but all the students in the classroom or laboratory. Unsafe behavior cannot be permitted.

A good step for starting off the school year with an emphasis on safety is to prepare and distribute a set of rules for the science classroom and laboratory. In many school districts, the rules are in the form of a science safety “contract” or agreement that is signed by the students and their parents. While such a contract is sometimes confused by parents or administrators as a liability waiver or a binding contract, it is neither; it is simply a written set of rules and guidelines that the students and their parents agree they have read and will follow. To avoid confusion, it is better to call this written set of rules a Science Safety Agreement.

No matter what you call the list, it is important that you prepare a simple set of rules that students must follow at all times in the science classroom and laboratory. The rules must be written down and then properly explained to students. Have students and their parents sign a copy; this alerts everyone that violations will result in disciplinary action. You should file copies of all the signed safety agreements and have each student keep a copy in his or her laboratory notebook.

Since no science teacher can anticipate all potential hazards, the science safety agreement should cover only general science safety rules and guidelines. Address specific hazards and precautions prior to and during every science activity. Also, regularly review the general rules. Document all safety discussions with students; this demonstrates that the duty of instruction has been met and reduces liability in the event of an accident and lawsuit.

Rules without enforcement are no rules at all; if a student violates a rule or behaves in an unsafe manner, he or she must be disciplined. A specific set of written disciplinary actions ensures clarity and equity in dealing with unsafe conduct. Again, documenting any violation and the resulting disciplinary action demonstrates proper duty of care, reduces a teacher’s liability, and ensures fair treatment of all students.

Most states or school districts have prepared science safety contracts or agreements. If your school does not currently have one, a simple Internet search will turn up thousands of appropriate agreements in use across the United States. If possible, use one that is both age and subject specific. Start (and finish) your school year safely and smoothly; commit to using a science safety agreement.

Have a safe and successful school year.