Lessons from methanol flash fires

From a letter to the editor in this week’s C&EN:

Yet another methanol flash fire has occurred with injuries when a high school teacher was demonstrating the “rainbow” flame test (C&EN, Nov. 9, 2015, page 6). While “rainbow” demonstrations have been conducted safely many times, they become dangerous if a large bottle of methanol is brought back to the demonstration to add more methanol. This same mistake has been repeated many times with catastrophic results. …

The big lesson learned is that undergraduates (tomorrow’s teachers, graduate students, scientists) need a solid safety laboratory education—the long-term fix. Today’s undergraduates get safety training, not a safety education. Safety education teaches the “why” behind hazards so the student can understand and learn to respect the need for safety. Understanding the “why” teaches students the basis for safety measures and rules—making them more likely to use and follow them.

Safety education teaches the student to think critically about safety. More than once, I have heard, “There’s not room in the curriculum” for safety education. We need to rethink our priorities, values, and ethics. Among various topics in chemistry, safety is the only one that can result in serious injuries or death if it is not taught or valued.

Safety education needs to be included in the chemistry curriculum from the very beginning, teaching principle-based safety: Recognize hazards, assess the risks of hazards, minimize the risks of hazards, and prepare for emergencies. Many of our science teachers only take a few courses in chemistry, so we need to get to them early and often to give them as much of a safety education as we can before they move on to other majors—it is clear that flammable hazards need to be understood by these students.

Read the full letter here. Find safety resources for demos and student experiments at cenm.ag/labdemo.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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