High Percentage of Chemical Accidents in Schools are Preventable

An analysis of chemical incidents in elementary and secondary schools conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), found that 62 percent of these incidents resulted from human error (i.e., mistakes in the use or handling of a substance), and 30 percent of incidents resulted in at least one acute injury.

Proper handling of chemicals is critical for the protection of students and facility in schools. Keeping an inventory of chemicals, correctly storing and labeling these products, as well as proper disposal are all required for safety. Education and training of the possible risks and hazards of chemicals needs to be provided to those who will be handling these dangerous chemicals.

Damage to a classroom in Fresno, CA after a chemical fire. Damage to a classroom in Fresno, CA after a chemical fire.

In their analysis of these incidents, the ATSDR found that the majority were caused by one of the following:

  • Improper chemical storage
  • Unsafe handling practices
  • Improper application of standard workplace procedures
  • Equipment failure (i.e., broken containers, hoses, or pipes)

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) recently released a video safety message, After the Rainbow, that focuses on potential dangers in high school chemistry laboratories. The message features Calais Weber, an accident survivor, who on January 23, 2006, at age 15 was burned over 40 percent of her body during a chemistry demonstration performed by her teacher at a prestigious boarding school she attended in Ohio.

What steps can schools take to prevent these accidents? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers these four strategies to help prevent chemical accidents:

1.  Identify places where chemical health and safety incidents might occur on your school’s campus such as:

  • Store rooms
  • Custodial closets
  • Kitchens
  • Nurses’ offices
  • Swimming pools
  • Science and art classrooms
  • Motor pools (bus barns)
  • Vocational and agricultural shops

2.  Develop and follow appropriate health and safety training and worksite practices for staff/students who use chemicals:

  • Store hazardous chemicals securely, in well-ventilated and lit areas; and, in tightly closed, properly labeled containers.
  • Avoid the combination of incompatible chemicals (For example, do not store alphabetically).
  • Avoid the use of flammable chemicals near open ignition sources (i.e. furnaces and space heaters) or damaged electrical outlets and wiring.
  • Perform periodic maintenance checks on vessels and equipment that contain hazardous chemicals (Look for unexpected crystallization in bottles, or bulging containers).

3.  Develop and distribute campus-specific contingency plans; then, train staff and students on emergency practices and procedures for chemical events, such as:

  • Practice evacuation and “shelter-in-place” drills with faculty
  • Compile chemical event notebooks with emergency checklists and phone contacts, chemical inventories and material safety data sheets (MSDS).
  • Designate lead staff to serve as monitors who would be responsible for making sure everyone under their charge follows the appropriate evacuation procedures.

4.    Develop, communicate and implement preventative policies and practices with chemicals on school grounds to:

  • Ensure that proper ventilation practices are considered when chemicals like pesticides, paints, and floor strippers are applied.
  • Identify and properly dispose of waste or derelict chemicals that have been in storage for an unknown period of time.
  • Enforce policies on improper possession or use of chemicals when observed on school grounds; common items may include liquid mercury, pepper spray, or cans of spray paint.
  • Substitute equipment that does not use mercury when replacement purchases are made; such as thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, or electrical equipment.

Additional resources for schools from the EPA can be found on their website, including the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool and the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Kit.

Emergency Film Group’s Chemical Safety Training Package teaches about the hazards of chemicals. This package contains two DVDs, Introduction to Hazardous Chemicals and Fun with Chemistry. It’s ideal for any first responder who may encounter chemicals in the course of their work or anyone who works around chemicals. More information about the package can be found here. . .

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