Learn and Practice Safety First in School, Business and at Work
My 12-year-old son Noah loves chemistry. His most recent book acquisition is an illustrated coffee-table-sized book describing in detail each of the elements of the periodic table. He often regales his father and me at dinner with esoteric facts about the more obscure elements.
In contrast, I am a recovering Pre-Med major. At the end of my sophomore year at the University at Albany, setting my Organic Chemistry lab bench briefly on fire was the coup de grâce that sealed my decision to change my major to English. It was disappointing, as I usually did better in the lab practice than I did on the exams. However, that performance gap fueled the distraction that led me to heat the alcohol solution directly over the flame, rather than in the water bath per that particular lab assignment. Thankfully, during that incident, I was wearing safety goggles, safety gloves and a protective lab apron. The instructor deftly whipped out the fire extinguisher and eliminated my lab-bench flambé in less than 60 seconds. I was later told that my gaffe was instrumental in changing the University’s lab safety rules. We were all damn lucky that no one was hurt.
Perhaps that lab-bench fire experience achieved some educational impact. As my career progressed, working in manufacturing and warehouse environments where safety must always be the first priority, they had me at hello, thanks to my school near-miss incident.
However, I am of the firm belief that if as students we do not learn what the compliance and safety boundaries are in school, we are set up for failure as adults in business and at work, as I have explained to my son Noah throughout his school career to date. Which makes the recent story of a chemistry demonstration accident in a New York City high school even more of a cautionary tale:
8 Violations for School in Wake of Lab Fire
Fire Department investigators have cited Beacon High School in Manhattan for eight violations, finding that dangerous chemicals were being stored unsafely and that safety equipment and practices were lacking in at least three rooms. One was the makeshift lab where two students were engulfed in flames last week when a chemistry demonstration went horribly awry.
The department gave the school, which is on the Upper West Side, 10 days to correct some of the violations of fire and building codes, and 30 days for others. But it did not issue a “cease and desist” order, which could have closed the teaching labs, James Long, a Fire Department spokesman, said on Wednesday.
The state Labor Department is also investigating the accident and its context, state officials said, because regulations require safety equipment like chemical fume hoods when teachers handle potentially explosive flammable liquids and toxic chemicals in the workplace. There was none in Room 317, a “science demo room,” where Alonzo Yanes, 16, was badly burned when fumes from the methanol used by a teacher to burn different substances ignited. Alonzo remained in critical condition on Wednesday in the burn unit of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The other student suffered relatively minor burns.
The Fire Department violations, issued to the principal, Ruth Lacey, also focused on the chemical storage room, Room 331; the school was ordered to immediately reduce the supply of hazardous chemicals to the amounts allowed by law, including no more than 15 gallons of flammable liquids and no more than five pounds of toxic substances. In a formal science laboratory, Room 321, the school was ordered to provide a safety shower and eye wash for decontamination, and to show that a chemical fume hood there was being tested annually for safe ventilation of dangerous fumes.
It appears, unlike workplaces that are governed and regulated by OSHA, there are not consistent safety guidelines, policies and ongoing safety training for the operation of high school chemistry labs. It’s at minimum a continuous improvement opportunity to support the safety of our children in school. As Noah pursues his passion for chemistry in high school, we as his parents will most definitely ensure that those practices are firmly in place to support his safety, and his safety education. From an oversight standpoint, I know all too well from my years of safety training and compliance enforcement that lapses in safety compliance and governance can not only kill and injure employees, but also effectively destroy and shut down businesses, impacting the livelihood and jobs of too many stakeholders.
How are you preparing your children to conduct themselves safely, to ensure their chances of a happy, safe, productive and long adult life? And if they don’t learn these lessons during their school years, how are you ensuring that the adults on your team conduct themselves safely, for the benefit of all, in business and at work?