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Risk Management

Insights from Losses: Preventing K-12 School Lab Incidents

The school laboratory can be an exciting learning environment, but serious incidents can and have happened. In our latest Insights from Losses series, we explore best practices for school labs to prevent dangerous outcomes.

March 26, 2024

The “rainbow demonstration” is a frequent school lab classroom experiment where methanol is used to light various metallic salts to produce different colored flames. Although this can be an exciting display for students, it is high-risk and has previously resulted in multiple catastrophic incidents that were completely preventable. The US Chemical Safety Board has recommended that this demonstration be discontinued immediately. Additionally, a recent study from the American Chemical Society reported that over 164 children and educators in the last 20 years have been injured during demonstrations using flammable solvents.

“Hands-on science activities encourage students to learn about the world around them, but the laboratory classroom needs to be a safe learning space for both students and instructors,” said Sara Gibson, Senior Risk Service Manager at Safety National. “It cannot be overstated how important it is to adapt common lab experiments to prioritize safety. These demos can still be entertaining without jeopardizing the safety of everyone involved.”

The Council of State Science Supervisor has partnered with Flynn Scientific to put together several manuals for safety in elementary and high school classrooms and in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) spaces.

According to the Counsel of State Science Supervisor, the following are the minimum practices and procedures that every classroom laboratory should be following:

  1. Have and enforce a safety contract signed by students and parents.
  2. Report all injuries, including animal scratches, bites, and allergic reactions, immediately to the appropriate personnel.
  3. Discuss, post, and enforce all safety procedures, including emergency phone numbers and spill response procedures.
  4. Know your district and state policies concerning administering first aid, including the treatment of cuts and response to blood exposures/clean up.
  5. Be trained in your school’s emergency plans, including the location and use of fire extinguishers, fire blankets, and emergency eye/showers.
  6. Make certain personal protective equipment (PPE) is easily accessible, clean and worn. Provide the appropriately sized, American National Standards Institute Z87.1-rated splash goggles, non-absorbent and chemical-resistant aprons, and non-allergic gloves. Hair should always be tied back, loose clothes and dangling jewelry should be secured, and only closed-toe shoes should be allowed.
  7. Identify medical and allergy problems to foresee potential hazards. Do not use latex gloves due to allergies; only use nitrile gloves in the lab.
  8. Assess and minimize barriers for students with disabilities. This can include providing PPE for service animals.
  9. Lab spaces should not be cluttered with bags or other trip hazards, and the size of the class should be appropriate to the space (45 square feet per student). The recommended teacher-to-student ratio is 1:24.
  10. Supervise students at all times. Students should not be permitted to conduct unauthorized experiments or to perform hazardous experiments at home. Lock classrooms and cabinets when not in use.
  11. Students should be trained in interpreting chemical labels and Safety Data Sheets (SDS). All chemicals should be labeled, and SDS should be provided for all experiments.
  12. Do not permit any eating or drinking in spaces where experiments are conducted.
  13. Wash hands and clean nails after removing gloves or when in contact with any animals, plants, soil samples, chemicals, or laboratory work surfaces.
  14. Purchase only the type and amount of chemicals that are needed for the school year. Try to use home or grocery store equivalents (e.g., vinegar in place of acetic acid). Do not use mercury thermometers. Dispose of all chemicals, including mercury thermometers, appropriately.
  15. Comply with local and federal regulations, including the OSHA Laboratory Standard – 29 CFR 1910.1450 and EPA disposal of hazardous wastes.


For more expertise, guidance or resources on this topic, please contact [email protected].