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Disclaimer: This article is intended to give basic guidelines for safety in an elementary science classroom. Please seek additional information before beginning any specific lessons and labs.

At the beginning of each year, when my students return to me, they always groan at the first piece of paper I hand out: their Science Safety Contract (download samples by clicking on the links). Regardless of their protests that “they already know the rules,” I spend my entire first half-hour class going over the rules of the lab. This little piece of paper governs their behavior in the lab for the entire year.

Safety Contract Samples

As science teachers, we are in the unique position of having our students handle some of the items they find most exciting … but that are also the most likely to be misused. The students need to understand the excitement of science, but also the potential hazards.

As I review the rules, I allow the students to brainstorm and explain each safety rule to me in their own words. I specifically have students address why each rule is important, and share anecdotes about what has happened when the rules have been ignored. We talk about how many chemicals resemble sugar but are really dangerous if consumed, and also how there is no such thing as a “tattletale” in science lab, because it is everyone’s job to keep each person safe. I outline the cost of replacing equipment if it is damaged — and I also emphasize that, unlike equipment, broken children can’t be replaced. This is not our most exciting science class, but it is the most important.

I also require that my students’ parents review and sign the contract as well so that there are no miscommunications. I do not allow any student to participate in experiments until their signed contract is returned to me, and I refer to the contract at the beginning of every lab. I keep these contracts on file throughout the year so that I can review with an individual student, if necessary. Students know that if they break a rule, they will not be invited back into science lab. As most students enjoy science lab, this is a significant consequence.

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This contract does not cover every situation in science lab. My rules are concise, overarching, and easily understandable — a necessity because of the ages of the students (I teach kindergarten through fifth grade). I address other specific safety concerns as they arise through the year. Some of the other aspects I consider are:

  1. Allergies: This can’t be emphasized enough. Be aware of any allergies your students have and review every lab for possible problems. Last year, I realized (in time, fortunately) that I had a student who was allergic to an ingredient in the food I was using for my caterpillars. Potential allergens are everywhere.
  2. Animals: Children need to be told how to properly care for and handle classroom animals, from insects, to fish, to mammals. Most animals have the potential to bite, and students need to be aware of that. Animals also pass waste, sometimes on their handlers. In no case should a student be forced to interact with an animal in the classroom.
  3. Safety Goggles: Safety goggles should be worn any time chemicals are used, including items we typically use in the kitchen, such as vinegar.
  4. Chemical Storage: Chemicals should be stored and disposed of properly. Online, you can find the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for any chemicals you will use. The SDS will outline the proper use, storage, and disposal of specific chemicals.
  5. Lab Safety Dress Code: Hair should be tied back. Sleeves should be rolled up. Dangling jewelry should be removed. Shoes must be close-toed. In my school, our students wear uniforms that address most of these requirements. The most difficult rule is the one requiring the student’s hair to be tied back. I keep a supply of cheap rubber bands in my desk for that purpose.
  6. Tools: Equipment should be made of plastic when possible. If students are using glass, they should be wearing protective equipment, including safety goggles. All equipment should be inspected for damage prior to each lab. Thermometers should be alcohol-based, and batteries should show no signs of leakage or wear.
  7. Fire/Heat: In an elementary school setting, all experiments using a heat source should be conducted as a teacher demonstration, and used only as necessary. Students should be placed a safe distance away from the demonstration. Students should wear always safety goggles.

Safety is paramount in any setting with children, especially a lab setting. Setting the tone for proper safety will pave the way for your young scientists to be prepared for the rest of their science career. I’d love to hear more about how you create a culture of safety in your classroom. Please share your ideas with me and other elementary science teachers on the AACT Discussion Board.

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