Protecting Schools and Teachers from Potential Negligence Cases
Bieber, Robert M., Risk Management
The goal of safety legislation in the education system is to ensure that school officials protect and promote the health, safety and welfare of students, staff and the environment. The importance of these regulations cannot be overstated, as the use and storage of chemicals in school laboratories creates numerous hazards that can cause accidents resulting in injuries, property damage and in some extreme cases death.
According to the National Safety Council, accidents are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of I and 38. The most serious school-related injuries are burns from fire, chemicals, hot vapors and electricity, soft tissue injuries from explosions, broken glass, falling objects and electric shock and poisoning caused by radioactivity and inhaling, ingesting or touching chemicals.
School accidents that occur due to chemical handling are in part caused by poor safety instruction. It is a teacher's professional responsibility to show students how to safely work with specific chemicals. He or she must instruct students on the use of protective eye-wear and other safety equipment and on their responsibilities in an emergency situation.
Accidents also take place due to the teacher's failure to keep the classroom clean. Good housekeeping is essential and includes maintaining and storing chemicals, ventilating the work site and monitoring the movement of chemicals from one location to another. Another cause of accidents is poor labeling of toxic chemicals. Chemistry labs often have chemical containers with faded or illegible labels or with labels missing entirely. Furthermore, some labels are incomplete, only naming the substance and not providing any information about the toxicity or flammability of the chemical. Health and Safety Legislation In the mid-1960s the federal government set up the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to survey industry and determine how and where serious injuries occur in the workplace. Based on the results of those studies, the government passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which established safety and health standards for the workplace, guidelines for individual states to develop comparable safety programs and enforcement procedures. The act set up the Hazard Communication Standard, which is designed to assure exposed employees that all chemical hazards have been evaluated and that the information relating to those hazards is available to them. To comply with the standard, industry is required to make sure that all chemical containers are properly labeled, obtain Material Safety Data Sheets for all chemicals bought and used and maintain a written hazardous communication program. It also mandates that industry establish guidelines for training and information dissemination and that companies locate hazardous chemicals in a way that protects employees, students and the public.
Using these federal guidelines, New York state established its own occupational safety and health program. The Public Employees Safety and Health Act of 1980, enforced by the state's Department of Labor, applies to all public employees. An extension of the state's safety and health legislation is the Right-to-Know Law, which guarantees employees the right to information, training and education regarding toxic substances in the workplace. It also requires public schools to post signs, train employees and keep records.
Failure to comply with the laws may impose a liability on both the school district and the teacher. The board of education would generally absorb a teacher's liability provided that he or she acted within the scope of employment. However, if the teacher's act was found to be intentional and out of the scope of employment, he or she could be subject to personal liability. Under the Right-to-Know Law, school employees can request and receive information listed in the labor law concerning toxic substance hazards in the workplace, refuse to work with toxic substances if information was requested and not received within 72 hours and exercise any right under the law without fear of discrimination. …