In March 2019, a student sustained serious burns and a staff member minor burns during a school science experiment when methylated spirits was applied to substances that were hot. A second student's uniform caught fire, but it was extinguished without causing injury. It appears the experiment was a soda snake experiment, in which carbon dioxide produced by hot baking soda pushes carbonate out from burning sugar.
Investigations are continuing.
Preventing a similar incident
Science activities sometimes involve the use of hazardous chemicals and play an important role in teaching science. However, such activities can pose safety risks which must be managed. Fires and explosions from hazardous chemicals can have catastrophic consequences.
PCBUs have the primary duty to ensure the health and safety of workers and others, including ensuring the safe use, handling and storage of substances.
Higher order risk controls include the development of a safe system of work encompassing a documented safety management system to comply with specific duties involving the management of health and safety risks associated with using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals at a workplace.
Other higher order risk controls include substituting a highly flammable liquid with one that is less flammable or combustible and designing, installing and maintaining both ventilation and fire protection systems that are suitable for the types of hazardous chemicals at the workplace.
Wherever flammable liquids, vapours, and gases, and combustible dusts are generated, used, stored and handled, a hazardous area classification should be conducted to determine the extent of applicable exclusion zones for potential ignition sources. Key control measures to manage the risks of storing, handling and using flammable and combustible liquids for experiments include:
- read the safety data sheet (SDS) and container label to ensure you know how to handle the product safely
- never pour a flammable liquid directly onto a flame or hot surface
- always keep flammable liquids away from ignition sources (e.g. open flames like Bunsen burners or pilot lights, hot surfaces, electrical sparking in switches and electronic devices, and static electricity discharges.)
- always decant/pour flammable liquids in areas that are well ventilated and free of ignition sources. For flammable liquids, decanting and dispensing will generate flammable vapours that are a fire risk.
Vapours from flammable liquids have a density greater than air and can move along any surfaces or pits (e.g. benchtops, sinks) below the point they are released, creating a risk of ignition in those areas. Minimise vapour emissions by:
- only allowing containers to be open for the time required to decant or dispense a flammable liquid and closing the container tightly when it is not in use
- removing hazardous chemical containers from the area when not in use to prevent the potential escalation of an incident
- minimising leaks and spills by using small volumes and cleaning up immediately
- providing ventilation to prevent the accumulation of vapours (suitable mechanical extraction vented to a safe area).
PCBUs should adequately train workers (such as teachers and laboratory technicians) and supervise other people (in this case students) to control the risk of fire or explosion from handling flammable liquids associated with an experiment.
Training must address:
- the nature of the risks associated with the flammable or combustible liquid, or any other hazardous chemicals
- the safe storage, use and handling of flammable and combustible liquids and applicable risk control measures
- emergency procedures (e.g. use of a fire extinguisher and first aid).
Each year on average, there are 345 workers' compensation claims accepted for chemical burns. Twenty percent of these are for serious injuries requiring five or more days off work.
Since 2013, we have been notified of 211 incidents involving chemical burns, 10 in the education and training industry. In the same period, we have issued 2,904 statutory notices for either a chemical burn or the risk of chemical burn.
Since 2018, we have issued 75 infringement notices (on the spot fines) totalling $221,904 relating to hazardous chemicals.
Prosecutions and compliance
In 2018, a business was fined $50,000 when a student received serious chemical burns and approximately 60 students had contact with a chemical during a school science experiment involving the use of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda).
The risk assessment identified chemicals to be used in the experiment as hazardous and nominated several control measures, including a protective screen, safety glasses and a laboratory coat. The school did not have a protective screen, so the teacher decided an informal exclusion zone (between him and the students) was appropriate.
During the experiment, one of the chemical bottles fell over, prompting the teacher to secure a lid on another which contained sodium hydroxide and aluminium. A short time later this bottle burst, spraying its contents over the students at the front of the demonstration.
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