Guidance provided on preventing school laboratory incidents

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) recently released a safety bulletin, Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations, based on three recent serious incidents in Nevada, Colorado and Illinois where children were burned while observing school laboratory demonstrations involving flammable liquid methanol.

All the incidents involved demonstrations of flames – usually with a color additive – using methanol as the flammable liquid. In all three cases there was a flash back to the methanol bulk containers, and fire engulfed members of the viewing audience who were not protected by any physical barriers. The safety bulletin notes that these incidents are similar to others the CSB has identified in which laboratory demonstrations involving flammable materials have resulted in fires and injuries.

CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said, “When performed safely these kinds of demonstrations can engage students and visitors and stimulate their interest in science. But methanol, the hazardous chemical involved in recent incidents is classified as a highly flammable liquid, and users should adopt strict safety controls.”

Methanol can ignite at room temperature and has the potential for dangerous flash fires, especially when large quantities are present. The threat is quite similar to gasoline. However, CSB investigators learned that methanol is readily sold to schools and museums in four-liter containers.    The CSB safety bulletin outlines key lessons learned as a result of the CSB’s investigation into these incidents:

  • Due to flash fire hazards and the potential for serious injuries, do not use bulk containers of flammable chemicals in educational demonstrations when small quantities are sufficient
  • Employers should implement strict safety controls when demonstrations necessitate handling hazardous chemicals — including written procedures, effective training, and the required use of appropriate personal protective equipment for all participants
  • Conduct a comprehensive hazard review prior to performing any educational demonstration
  • Provide a safety barrier between the demonstration and the audience

For additional information, read the full text of the safety bulletin or direct questions to public@csb.gov.

For additional school safety and security assistance, please contact Maine DOE’s Pat Hinckley at pat.hinckley@maine.gov or 624-6886.