Better Science Safety What the Data Tells Us

Recent statistics from a study completed in 2020 investigating safety in STEM and CTE laboratories in the USA.  Some of the key findings include:

  • 93% of participating teachers had a safety plan as part of their curriculum.
  • 12% did not provide safety training to students prior to participation in lab activities.
  • 11% of participating teachers did not require students to complete a safety test prior to working in the lab.
  • 33% did not require students to obtain a score of 100% on their safety tests.  ‘
  • 35% of teachers of STEM and CTE did not have any formalized safety training
  • 69% of teachers do not use an acknowledgement form with their students
  • STEM accident increase once class size exceeds 24 students
  • 58% of teachers could not recall the last annual safety inspection in their school
  • 31% of schools did not have a reliable SDS management system in place
  • 41% of schools perform a chemical inventory annually
  • 37% of schools are unsure how they dispose of chemicals in the district
  • 57% of schools have classes larger than 25 students, but only 26% of those schools have a facility large enough to support that many students
  • 86% of classrooms have a fire extinguisher
  • 77% of accidents involve students
  • Overcrowding is the second largest cause of accidents in schools
  • Only 45% of schools have ANSI Z87.1 D3 2020 indirectly vented splash goggles for working with liquids but 83% have safety glasses for students working with solids
  • 51% of schools nationally have had an injury or litigation
  • 80% of science & STEM teachers reported having 1 injury in their classes in the past year
  • 62% of teachers regard students not following instructions as the leading cause of accidents or injuries

What Are the Implications for Safer STEM Teaching and Learning?

Safety plays a critical role in our daily lives. From the equipment we use in our kitchen to the advanced safety features in our vehicles, safety is a core consideration in every scientific discovery, and technological and engineering innovation. Safety is also an enduring concept, one that has been a vital component of early manual arts and science programs to present-day design-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) instruction in laboratories, makerspaces, Fabrication Labs (Fab Labs), libraries, community centers, and outdoor education programs (Love and Roy 2022).

In May 2022, the book Safer Engineering and CTE Instruction: A National STEM Education Imperative: What the Data Tells Us was published; it was based on the research study conducted by Tyler S. Love (Penn State University, Harrisburg) and Kenneth Russell Roy (NSTA Chief Science Safety Advisor).  The book provides practitioner-focused recommendations on how to better protect teachers, supervisors, and administrators from legal entanglements by proactively addressing potential safety hazards and resulting risk assessments and implementing appropriate safety actions. 

The study’s findings are presented according to regional and national averages reflecting safety factors, safety characteristics of facilities, and instructor and student safety practices relative to STEM and Career and Technical Education (CTE) learning spaces. The book’s purpose in part was to raise levels of awareness about the need to improve and/or adopt updated STEM and CTE safety policies and practices for a safer teaching and learning experience. In addition, the book supports critical information inquiries for necessary safety resources needed by professional education associations, state education departments, teacher preparation programs, administrators, school districts, teachers, and others (e.g., community makerspaces). In this way, this blog post’s purpose is to briefly introduce some of the key findings from the study and include a limited discussion.

What Exactly Is STEM?

Before the findings are presented, it is important that the readers understand the term STEM within the context of the study. STEM is used in reference to science, technology and engineering (T&E), CTE, and integrated STEM activities, which could include observations, hands-on investigations, explorations, demonstrations, and/or field activities and investigations. These activities could encompass crosscutting teaching and learning opportunities that integrate concepts from additional content areas (mathematics, the arts, etc.). STEM education safety is applicable across science, T&E, CTE, and other content areas involving scientific inquiry, engineering design, science and engineering practices, problem-based learning, design-based learning, and career and college readiness (Love and Roy 2022, p. 10).

Summary and Brief Discussion of Findings

The study revealed many findings that teachers, supervisors/administrators, state departments of education, teacher educators, and others need to be aware of and address. The following were among some study results that had the most alarming safety statistics and are well worth highlighting. 

  1. A large percentage (52%) of teachers reported having four or more preps per semester, which could place increased safety responsibilities on teachers (e.g., additional setup and maintenance). Previous studies have found more than two preps in a semester to contribute to increases in accidents. 
  2. Regarding facilities, the study revealed a noticeable lack of safety zones, access to eyewash stations and showers, fully stocked first aid kits, emergency power shutoff controls, ventilation for soldering, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for welding/casting/molding in lab facilities.
  3. The study also indicated districts should invest in air filtration for operating 3-D printers, but it was reported absent frequently in this study (75% reported no 3-D printer ventilation). Emerging studies have found hazardous levels of ultrafine particles (UFPs) are often emitted from desktop 3-D printers. 
  4. School nurses, STEM and CTE departments, district safety officers, and the local fire marshal should all have copies of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for all hazardous materials/chemicals found in STEM and CTE labs within a school or library. 
  5. A large percentage of teachers noted they did not require a signed safety acknowledgment form, passing of safety tests, use of safety glasses/indirectly vented goggles, securing of long hair and loose jewelry/clothing, and wearing of closed-toe shoes before any student was allowed to conduct lab activities. This presents serious legal and safety issues, as many state statutes require appropriate eye protection in addition to better professional safety practices, which this study found were not followed consistently or steadfastly.
  6. Only 38% of participants reported completing the simple task of testing their eyewash and showers for several minutes every week as called for by the American National Standards Institute/International Safety Equipment Association (ANSI/ISEA) Z358.1-2014 eyewash/shower standard. 
  7. There was an identifiable lack of safety training, as only 54% of participants reported receiving such training during undergraduate technical and/or teaching methods courses. This not only puts students at a higher risk of an accident, but also does so for the teacher! Teacher preparation programs and mentor teachers should ensure safety is a core focus for all preservice teachers. 
  8. There was also an identifiable lack of safety training provided by school districts. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers (school districts) to train employees (teachers) upon initial hiring, anytime thereafter when a new hazard is present (e.g., new equipment, new chemical, etc.), and when there is a new job assignment in the workplace (STEM or CTE lab). Further research featuring statistical analyses from the data in this study revealed that a lack of safety training, along with other factors, were significantly associated with increased accident rates.

Download the PDF: Safer Engineering and CTE Instruction: A National STEM Education Imperative