A school laboratory could be a benign place of practical learning, but it can as well be a place with a thousand ways to die. From chemicals to dangers of fire outbreaks, it is ever risky. Yet we cannot stop using them on the basis of danger, but how then can schools ensure labs are safe for students? Collins Mwai went asking;-
One of the news stories that made headlines last week was the report that two students from College APPEC Remera Rukoma in Kamonyi District died after allegedly drinking ethanol they smuggled from the chemistry lab.
What probably began as a benign, knowledge-seeking experiment ended up with two burials and the treatment of 14 others at a local hospital.
The incident left many questioning the safety of learning institutions and the access students have to toxic substances in school laboratories. Others questioned the preparedness laboratories and school managements have in case of emergencies occurring in a laboratory.
Robert Nkongoli, from Nyamirambo, is one such father who knowing his son’s curious ways is worried of what he might get himself into.
“As a parent, I am now afraid of what students might get themselves into considering most of them in high school have poor judgment blinded by adolescence and peer influence,” Nkongoli says.
Ethanol is a chemical compound coveted and dreaded in equal measure. Dreaded by those aware of how lethal it is and coveted by adventurous students who would like to get ‘high’.
Only ethanol is consumable among substances in the chemical class of alcohol. But a chemistry teacher like Gerard Uwimana of Lycee de Kigali explains that although it is consumable, it can only be absorbed at a certain degree of concentration.
“When it comes from the manufacturer, it is usually highly concentrated and cannot even be used for laboratory practice in that state. It has to be diluted. The lab technicians or teachers are the ones who should go about diluting it to proportions that are safe for use in chemistry practical studies,” Uwimana says.
He says precautionary steps should be taken to ensure the safety of students when dealing with chemicals.
“It should never be up to the student to dilute the chemicals themselves. The teacher and lab technician do it prior to the experiments and ensure that the concentrated chemicals are locked away out of students reach,” Uwimana says.
“It is during this time they ensure that there are no excesses of the chemicals during the experiments as this can be easily misused by the students.”
Another safety precaution taken during experiments is to ensure that there is always flowing water in the laboratory’s taps.
“Before any experiment commences, the instructor should ensure that there is ample water flowing from taps in case there is an acid spill. The laboratory should also be spacious enough for easy supervision. The heating points (burners) should be minimal so that the facilitator can easily supervise the students’ progress,” Uwimana says.
But even with all these precautions and measures, he admits that students can have a way to dodge their supervisors and do things they should not.
“It is hard to supervise everyone and teach at the same time; they can work as a team to distract you or lie to you and conceal chemicals for their own uses.”
Uwimana says adolescents are curious to try out new things.
“They want to touch, smell or taste substances they probably shouldn’t. Ethanol is a key target substance since most of them are aware of its ability to make them drunk and most of them say it looks like ‘Kanyanga’ (local brew),” he says.
A substance like ethanol can be lethal when it contains even small amounts of methanol.
“At times when it comes from the manufacturer, it may contain methanol which can cause blindness and death even if it’s only a small concentration,” Uwimana says.
Uwimana adds that the best way to treat accidents and incidences in laboratories is to rush the student to a medical facility but smaller incidences can be handled on the spot.
“If it is something like an acid spill, one can wash it off with water and apply a base to mitigate the impact but if it is ingestion of a substance it is best to rush the victim to the hospital.”
Other facilities where students may be prone to such incidents and accidents are workshops for students who take technical courses.
Josephn Nsengiyumva, who graduated from high school a year ago, says it was common to see students, especially those in their final year, walk into workshops and laboratories without supervision.
“In the guise of preparing for examinations, some students would access laboratories or workshops and play around with chemicals or workshop equipment,” he says.
“It was an age of curiosity and experimenting and some of us tried things we had heard like drinking ethanol or roasting pieces of meat with the Bunsen burners. The mob psychology can easily take over and lead to poor judgement, causing you to do things that you wouldn’t do if you were alone.”
Another concern that has been raised by concerned parents is if the laboratories have first aid equipment and if laboratory technicians can administer first aid.
“When I talk to my sons, they say that their school labs don’t have much in terms of first aid equipment. Knowing the hazardous substances in these laboratories and workshops, it is a little alarming that all they have is flowing tap water,” says Devota Uwase, a parent.
Are school science laboratories safe?
Nicholus Kizza, a video editor. ‘Some schools ensure safety but in most cases they don’t because students are not briefed; most of them don’t know the dangers of these chemicals in the lab. A student might drink hydrogen peroxide thinking that it is water.’
Davis Habimana, a teacher. ‘There are always rules and guidelines for anyone accessing a lab. There are fire extinguishers at the entrance of every lab and students are closely monitored because some chemicals like acids are extremely dangerous.’
Doreen Ingabire, lawyer. ‘Schools don’t do much. It is difficult to find protective equipment like fire extinguishers or gloves and the right attire to use in the labs. Look at chemistry labs where fire is used in most practical studies, students are at risk most of the time.’
Immaculate Mbabazi, graduate. ‘I remember a student almost burnt us in the laboratory during my O-Level simply because she didn’t know the right chemicals to use. I think before allowing students in labs, teachers should ensure that they know what to do.’
Desire Irankunda, a student. ‘In my school, no student can go into the laboratory without a teacher and before you enter you are supposed to wear safety gear and gloves to avoid direct contact with any of the dangerous chemicals.’
Compiled by S. Kwihangana
General rules in the use of labs in a school environment
Work in the lab only when the teacher or lab instructor/supervisor is present or when you have permission to do so;
Ask for and familiarize yourself with all manuals, resources and guidelines for working in your school's laboratories. These include safe work procedures, chemical safety information, laboratory equipment safety information and links to other resources. If you have any questions in preparation, do not hesitate to ask for updated or missing information;
Learn the location and proper usage of the
eyewash fountain, fire extinguisher, safety shower, fire alarm box, office intercom button, evacuation routes, cleanup brush and dust pan, glass/chemical disposal can and any additional safety equipment including evacuation procedures;
Report all accidents regardless of how minor to your teacher or lab instructor/supervisor including contact with chemicals and minor burns, spills, etc.
Keep a focus on your projects and experiments; do not play, joke, distract others,
or engage in behaviour that could lead to injury of yourself or others.
Before beginning work in lab, prepare yourself with a thorough understanding of the instructions, objectives of the experiment, and understanding of the materials
Begin with a clean work surface with your instructions clearly posted and available; have a clear, clean work space and eliminate unnecessary books, bags, equipment, etc.
Use goggles and lab aprons as instructed; wear appropriate clothing and avoid loose fitting garments that can cause spills as well as open-toed footwear or sandals
Use care when accessing or transporting stock chemicals and only under supervision
Use equipment only as directed;
View the contents of experiments from the side; never directly into an experiment as in a test tube.
Carefully smell experiments using your hand to "fan" the odour or fumes towards you and only when instructed to do so. Never directly above or in the container.
Never taste or ingest chemicals or materials in the lab; do not bring food, drink and gum etc. into the lab area;
Return all lab materials and equipment to their proper places after use as instructed; clean your lab space as instructed by your teacher or lab instructor/supervisor