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SAFETY SPOTLIGHT: Preparing Makerspaces and STEM Labs for Summer Break: The OAH Approach
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The authors present a three-pronged approach to aid in safely closing down STEM education facilities for summer break while simultaneously preparing for the following academic year.
The excitement of summer break arriving may have best been described by country music artist Kenny Chesney in his hit song Summertime, “…just like a long-lost friend you ain’t seen in a while, you can’t help but smile” (Wiseman & McEwan, 2006). For educators and students alike, this is a much-needed vacation to help reinvigorate their thirst for teaching and learning. However, the weeks leading up to summer break can be stressful for instructors and administrators, as they are ultimately responsible for inspecting and cleaning up their STEM education facilities to ensure a safer start the following academic year. It was almost three years ago that we published safety recommendations for the start of a new school year (Love & Roy, 2017). As the sun sets on another academic year, Safety Spotlight comes full circle by providing recommendations for closing down a makerspace or lab in preparation for summer break.
The OAH Approach
The thought of cleaning up a lab after a busy semester or marking period can be a daunting one. However, if approached using the three categories depicted in Figure 1, it becomes a much more manageable task. There is a considerable amount of overlap among these three areas, which is why the Organizational, Administrative, Housekeeping (OAH) approach should be viewed as a systematic approach working toward one goal—maintaining safer STEM facilities. The following section describes each area of the OAH approach with examples.
This section encompasses paperwork tasks as well as other actions requiring organization for compliance with federal, state, and local legal requirements.
Student Safety Documentation – All students will have to retake safety tests upon returning the following school year, but instructors should maintain these valuable safety records (e.g., safety tests, safety acknowledgement forms, safety assignments, etc.) until students graduate as part of developing a legal paper trail. If an accident occurred, the instructor should keep all safety documentation for the students involved. The statute of limitations for negligence in most states is 2-3 years from the date of the harm. For example, in the state of Connecticut, parents or legal guardians can file a lawsuit as “next friends” if the child is under 18 years old. While the 2-3 years rule is the same for children as well as adults in Connecticut, in other states, the timeframe for minors to file a lawsuit on their own behalf may not start until their 18th birthday.
SDS (Safety Data Sheet) – In conjunction with inventorying chemicals and other hazardous materials, the SDS binder should be checked to ensure any new hazardous items have an SDS on file. The SDS binder should be organized by current items and old items. Each SDS should be dated so the school knows when that item was obtained. Old SDSs should be kept on file for at least 30 years in the event that an employee or retiree develops symptoms resulting from a chemical or material to which they were exposed. The instructor, school nurse, school chemical hygiene officer, and local fire marshal should all receive copies of the updated SDSs. School districts may opt to use an online SDS management system to help inventory hazardous materials, and organize and update SDSs. If using an online system, the SDS must still be readily accessible in the event of an accident.
Disposal – Appropriate disposal of hazardous chemicals and materials is critical for a safer teaching/learning environment. Throughout the school year, hazardous chemicals for disposal need to be stored appropriately in a secure area like the chemical storeroom or a locked flammable cabinet. Make sure chemical containers are placed in trays in case of leakage. Also, have all chemicals labeled along with copies of their SDSs. Check the chemical inventory for those chemicals that have designated “life spans” (e.g., peroxides). Additionally, items like lithium batteries can become explosive. These and other hazardous items can be very dangerous and cause explosions/fires. Instructors should work with their school system to make sure only certified and reputable hazard waste contractors are used. Remember, the school owns the chemical legally from cradle to grave! Resources such as SDSs (Section 13 – Disposal considerations), Flinn Scientific catalogs (Chemical Disposal Procedures – Safety Reference) and others have critical information on proper disposal of chemicals.
Storage – Appropriate storage and security of hazardous chemicals are also critical. There are several important resources that should be used to assure storage of these hazards is done in a safer way. Examples include the following:
SDS Section 7 – Handling and Storage provides recommendations on the conditions for safer storage, including any incompatibilities. It also provides advice on specific storage requirements (e.g., ventilation requirements). Check out the National Science Teaching Association’s (NSTA) September 27, 2019 Safety Blog titled “Safer Storage” (http://blog.nsta.org/2019/09/27/safer-storage/). It contains valuable information that should be considered for storing hazardous chemicals in chemical storage rooms, storage cabinets, and refrigerators, based on legal safety standards and better professional safety practices. Lastly, Flinn Scientific’s catalog has a special section on chemical storage patterns for specific chemical categories and compatibilities.
This section includes items that the instructor must complete and keep on record as evidence that appropriate safety actions were taken if an accident occurs. These can be time-consuming but are critical if there is a serious safety incident involving potential litigation.
Inspection Report – Roy and Love (2017) discuss the importance and details of conducting a thorough inspection report at the end of each semester. The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Technology Education Safety Guide provides an excellent inspection checklist for school systems to use (www.teeap.org/Publications/safety.html). While conducting these inspections it is important for instructors to document all results and share a copy with their administration. This should involve tasks ranging from testing engineering controls (e.g., eye wash, emergency power shut-off switches, machine guarding, dust collection systems, etc.) to restocking your first aid kit.
Inventory – This includes three parts: chemical and hazardous materials inventory, tool and equipment inventory, and non-hazardous item inventory (e.g., computers, cardstock, etc.). Chemicals and hazardous materials should be safely checked for expiration date, proper storage/security, appropriate labeling from the manufacturer, and the SDS on file. A list of all chemicals/hazardous materials, expiration dates, and storage locations should be documented and updated each year, and this should be kept on file by the school system’s designated Chemical Hygiene Officer (required under OSHA regulations). Flinn Scientific provides excellent resources for helping inventory chemicals. Tool and equipment inventory helps to deter theft and document the condition of these items over time.
Budget Planning – During the instructor’s thorough inventory of items they may find an excess of items or ones that need to be reordered. This can help generate a list of items ordered each year and aid in budgeting for future years based on past trends. The inspection and inventory tasks can also help in budgeting for upcoming expenses such as preventative maintenance or replacement costs.
Work Orders – While conducting the safety inspection, instructors may recognize facility or equipment issues that require the expertise of trained maintenance personnel. For example, if there is a frayed cord or missing plug ground prong on a piece of equipment, instructors should not attempt to install a new cord. They should submit a request to have their school system’s electrician fix these types of issues. If an instructor installs a new cord and there is an accident found to be the result of the cord they installed, they could be liable. Teachers should not be afraid to use the resources and expertise provided by their school system.
Training and Insurance – At the end of the year it is good practice for instructors and administrators to check when their professional liability insurance policy will expire and make a note on their calendar to renew it. Professional liability policies such as those available to ITEEA members through Forrest T. Jones & Company (FTJ) provide very reasonably priced plans that could cover expensive legal fees in the event of an accident. If there will be new equipment arriving in the facility, or if an instructor will be expected to teach new activities and processes involving hazards for which they are untrained, they should contact their administration in writing requesting to attend training on appropriate hazards. Under OSHA regulations, employers have a responsibility to provide appropriate training for their employees relative to any new hazards in the workplace (e.g., hazardous chemicals, power tools, etc.).
Security – After spending time inventorying and verifying the condition of items, it is important to secure these items by locking them in the appropriate storage areas. Instructors may also consider removing all keys from the power switches of equipment. This effective energy lock-out will deter theft and abuse of equipment. It also will limit the risk of someone gaining access to hazardous items over the break and sustaining an injury from them.
This section provides some final considerations. While certain housekeeping tasks should be performed more than just once a year, the end of the school year provides an opportunity for conducting housekeeping tasks in a more thorough manner.
Cleaning – Throughout the year students are handling many items in a makerspace and lab. During flu season teachers are generally more cognizant about sanitizing desks, handles, electronics, and other items students are handling. The end of the school year is a good time to use disinfectant wipes to clean items before storing them away. Do not forget about places where students place other body parts like their eyes (e.g., microscopes). Instructors should thoroughly sanitize and clean all personal protective equipment (PPE). At a minimum this should include washing aprons/jackets, gloves, and all safety goggles/glasses/face shields. Cabinets with ultraviolet light can sanitize safety goggles/glasses, but dish detergent and warm water can help clean off residue that has built up over the course of the year. This is also a good time to clean out and sanitize any refrigerators in a makerspace or lab. Furthermore, removing dust or dirt that has built up on lighting fixtures, fume hoods, equipment, and other items over the course of the year can help reduce fire hazards.
Instructors must remember that they have a responsibility to ensure that appropriate ventilation is provided and proper PPE is worn by everyone participating in the cleaning process. It is also critical that the instructor ensure equipment and tools are unplugged or the breaker switch is turned off while cleaning them. This is especially important if students are assisting with the cleaning tasks as seen in the Cureton v. Philadelphia School District ruling (Love, 2013).
Safety Zones and Signage – As part of the safety inspection report, instructors should ensure that all safety zones are clearly marked, in good shape, and all signage matches the current equipment, tools, and processes in that area. Instructors should also check nonskid strips and the function of all electrically operated signs.
Replacing Parts – A major component of housekeeping is the inspection and replacement of items like ventilation filters, blades, and fluids. The distilled water used in the cooling pump for a laser engraver should be changed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. The end of the school year provides a great time to change the distilled water for better machine performance and to prepare for the next school year. As instructors are conducting their safety inspection report, they may find used or worn parts that need to be replaced. If these require major replacements that could impact the safer operation of the machine, it is recommended that you request a certified technician make those repairs. It is critical for instructors to thoroughly inspect all safety guards and either lock a machine out of order or replace the guard with a manufacturer-recommended part before it can be used again. Similar to the cleaning process, instructors must ensure all equipment and tools are unplugged or the breaker switch is turned off while performing any maintenance tasks.
Preventative Maintenance Measures – There are a number of preventative maintenance measures that should be performed periodically to increase machine/tool performance and longevity. These should be performed according to the manufacturer’s equipment/machine manuals. Moving parts that require being greased or oiled should be tended to at this time. Another consideration is the humidity in your makerspace or STEM lab and the impact it can have on causing certain equipment to rust, especially the shiny tabletops of woodworking equipment. One option is to run a dehumidifier in the facility, but this can be costly in terms of electricity and requires continual drainage. The other option is to use a rust prevention agent such as BoeShield T-9. This will provide a wax-like coating that resists rust while also not attracting dust to stick to it. If using a rust prevention agent, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for ventilation while applying and also the required drying time before use.
As this article asserts, there are a number of items to consider when preparing to close up a makerspace or STEM lab for summer break. It can be a daunting task if items are not kept up with throughout the school year. The OAH approach can assist in ensuring that critical tasks are considered and completed. Each task plays an integral role in the overall mission of providing a safer facility from year to year. Instructors and administrators should work collaboratively in conducting and communicating the results of these end-of-year activities. The OAH approach has the potential to help schools improve their STEM education safety plan, proactively address foreseeable safety hazards, avoid costly lawsuits, and generate documents that reveal trends to help budget and save money.
Love, T. S. (2013). Addressing safety and liability in STEM education: A review of important legal issues and case law. The Journal of Technology Studies, 39(1), 28-41.
Love, T. S. & Roy, K. R. (2017). Ten recommendations for a safer school year. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 77(1), 23-25.
Roy, K. R. & Love, T. S. (2017). Safer makerspaces, fab labs and STEM labs: A collaborative guide! Vernon, CT: National Safety Consultants, LLC.
Wiseman, C. & McEwan, S. (2006). Summertime [Recorded by K. Chesney]. On The road and the radio [CD]. Nashville, TN: BNA Records.
Tyler S. Love, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Elementary/Middle Grades STEM Education and Director of the Capital Area Institute for Mathematics and Science (CAIMS) at Penn State University’s Capital Campus. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Ken R. Roy, Ph.D. is the chief science safety compliance adviser for the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and Director of Environmental Health & Chemical Safety for Glastonbury Public Schools in CT. For current safety information, follow Dr. Roy on Twitter@drroysafersci. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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