Ensure Students Read and Understand Labs
What would you do before a lab to help students prepare?
When I was teaching college chemistry, I would have students write a list of all chemicals used in an experiment including the major hazards associated with each chemical. There is value in writing the chemical formula as well as the name since many chemicals have multiple names. To describe the hazards, I let students choose if they wanted to use signal words, NFPA ratings, or GHS ratings. I would then quiz them to make sure that they understood what they were writing.
Where should students find the hazard information?
SDS information MUST be available to anyone who is working in a chemical lab. Students may want to use Wikipedia or other online sources to find hazard information, however, the level of detail provided in a full SDS is not only the most reliable resource, but far and beyond what they would find in any brief online summary. This exercise provides another opportunity to point out to students where the SDS collection is kept. Completing this exercise ensures that students have read the lab beforehand and helps to build an understanding of the potential hazards associated with lab work.
Would you require more from higher level students?
For students taking 300 level classes and above, I would expect them to also write a tentative timeline for the experiment, so they could estimate their time management and develop a keener sense for how long different techniques will take.
In graduate school, were there any other lab safety policies?
As a graduate student, I was required to perform a safety assessment before starting any experiment and those with a high hazard rating required a supervisor’s signature before the experiment could be started.
Lab safety education is important at every level and should be given special attention at the start of every lab — safety is no accident!
The American Chemical Society (ACS) addresses the need for safety education in their guidelines covering undergraduate through postgraduate lab safety education. The suggestions offered by Alan Downward can help students recognize hazards and assess the risks of hazards more easily—two of the learning outcomes in the ACS guidelines. Review the ACS Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Academic Institutions (2016) here.