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Teacher Resources

Where and Why Science Accidents Occur

New Safety Study Reveals Important Information

In 1996, Larry Duff, Ed.D. of Omaha, Nebraska released the results of a lab safety survey he conducted of junior and senior high school physical science/chemistry teachers in Nebraska. The response rate to his survey was over ninety-five percent.

Two very important findings came out of this survey.

1) In grades 9-12, seventy percent of all accidents occurred at the ninth grade level.

2) Ninety-three percent of all teachers surveyed said the largest reason for accidents occurring in the science lab was "Students' failure to carefully read and understand laboratory activity instructions."

Do you agree with these findings? Do these findings sound familiar to your school? Why do most high school science laboratory accidents occur at the ninth grade level?

Here are a few possible reasons we hear from science teachers.

1) Due to overcrowding and lack of laboratory space, ninth grade science is always the first to be relocated to a non-science room that is not equipped to teach science safely.

2) Physical science curriculum is poorly written. At many schools it is a hand-me-down from the higher grades. Poorly written curriculum means poorly written lab instructions.

3) First year teachers who would rather be teaching chemistry or biology get "stuck" teaching ninth grade science because of lack of seniority. Could the lack of work experience and having not been trained in safety in college be part of the problem? In Dr. Duff's study over fifty percent of the teachers reported they had no formal training in laboratory safety.

4) Are school budget dollars fairly allocated? Does ninth grade science receive fewer dollars than higher level classes? Does this have an impact on safety?

5) Maturity level and behavior of ninth graders. Teachers tell us this is probably the biggest reason why accidents occur at the ninth grade level. As one teacher put it, "ninth graders are just naturally squirrely. Their hormones are running wild ... it's just a strange and difficult age."

Think about the ninth grade science students at your school. Are most of the accidents occurring at the ninth grade level? If so, why? As a department, begin to think about ways you can reduce the number of accidents at the ninth grade level, while at the same time improving the science experience these students receive.

Accidents occur because of "students' failure to carefully read and understand laboratory activity instructions". When told of this data, teachers simply nod their heads in agreement. If students did a better job following written and verbal instructions, fewer accidents would occur. What can educators do to help solve this problem? Here are a few possible solutions:

1) Instead of the teacher presenting the prelab safety instructions, have one of the student lab teams present the prelab safety instructions. A portion of their lab grade can be based on their prelab safety presentation. Depending on the number of labs you do a year, each student lab team should be able to prepare and present the prelab instructions 2-3 times a year. Students can consult their lab manual, review Material Safety Data Sheets, look through the Flinn Scientific Catalog/Reference Manual, consult reference books like the Merck Index or perhaps even go "on-line" to reference safety information via the Internet (we've listed some web page locations in the Flinn Fax! Bulletin Board). Students will learn and understand important safety rules if they have to do the research and present safety instructions to their peers. Maybe the safety message you want your students to hear will be better understood when it's coming from someone other than you.

2) Another possible solution is to pretest students on the techniques, procedures and safety information they must know in order to successfully perform the lab experiments. Students who don't pass the pretest, miss the lab experiment and receive a zero. Yes, a zero is harsh, but students need to understand that they can not enter the lab and perform an experiment unless they fully understand what they are doing.

3) Make sure students read and understand the safety rules you have established in the science lab for conduct and behavior. A detailed safety contract outlining the rules of the lab must be the foundation of your science safety program. Discuss these rules and reinforce them throughout the school year.

The data in Dr. Duff's survey is invaluable. For the first time we have data which not only tells us where most of the high school science accidents occur, but also why. Give ninth grade science students an extra dose of safety training and let's develop techniques to ensure students are prepared to perform lab experiments properly and safely.

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