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Danger and Safety in the Lab

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Danger and Safety in the Lab

I remember my own first Physics and Chemistry lessons, aged 11, very clearly indeed. I loved that it was a whole new world of doing things, in a very particular way. With strange new equipment and beakers of weird dangerous liquids that changed colour, fizzed or burst into flames.

The main emotion I felt when I first became a teacher of Year 7 science was the weight of responsibility and honour to recreate that initial introduction for a whole new generation. I want them all, each and every year, to feel that same sense of wonder, anticipation, excitement and feelings of success as I did. 

I still have all my original exercise books of course. You know what? What we teach now is exactly the same. I run, as far as possible, the same introductory experiments, the same introduction to the the scientific method and the same explanation of risks and hazards and instructions on safety. (All except one of my favourite reactions, that of the ignition of ammonium dichromate which we’re not supposed to do anymore).

Some other subject teachers and some parents are surprised that in this age of health and safety where kids are no longer allowed to carry pen knives or use solvent based glues (quite rightly), we far more dangerous stuff in the lab than you think.

A major part of teaching science is about teaching the concept of risk and how to manage it. Rules are not there to spoil our fun as some believe, rules are there to keep us safe so we can do even more. The arrival of the rules around Covid-19 in our science lessons are a massive inconvenience of course. But having life and limb threatening dangers in our labs is not new and although annoying, frustrating and time-consuming, it’s all in a day’s work for us: we just have another set of safety procedures to add to our existing risk assessments and safety protocols.

I did not want the virus protection policies to limit or spoil our pupils’ science education experiences, especially for our Year 7 pupils. We’re implementing all the complex guidelines (from CLEAPSS, the support agency for science in schools). To do so we’re re-jigging our curriculum and lessons running order, equipment usage rotas, cleaning and sterilisation plans, to offer as much practical experimental hands-on work as possible. 

In short, you still have to tie your hair back and tuck your tie in, put on your safety specs and stand up straight, tucking your stool under the bench. You still have to light your bunsen burner and set it to the roaring blue flame of 700 degrees Celsius. Yes, there will be explosions. Yes, there will be high voltage sparks. Yes, there will be fizzing and colour changes, poisonous gasses and corrosive acids. Yes, there will be electron guns and lasers. Yes, there will be radiation, strange smells and odd coloured flames. There will be all these things because we’ve carefully planned and prepared to showcase all these terrifying dangers while keeping all of us safe.

Ayd Instone, Head of Physics, Head of Enrichment and Extra-Curricular

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