Statement from Board Member Kristen M. Kulinowski, PhD, November 3, 2015:
On behalf of everyone at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, I would like to express our sympathies to the students and teacher who were injured at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, last Friday, October 30, 2015. The CSB is not investigating this accident, but is gathering facts about the incident. The agency plans to increase its advocacy around this issue to promote our key lessons going forward.
Unfortunately, the accident at Woodson is one of many to occur around the country during lab or classroom demonstrations where methanol or other flammable liquids are used as a fuel for combustion.
In response to three serious accidents over an eight-week period in 2014 that injured children and adults, the CSB issued a safety bulletin titled, "Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations."
The CSB also released a safety message featuring Calais Weber, a young woman who was burned on over 40% of her body during a similar chemistry demonstration at her high school in Ohio in 2006. That CSB video, called “After the Rainbow,” is available to view on YouTube
and on the CSB website
Similar to what we have learned so far about the recent accident at Woodson, all of the previous incidents CSB investigated involved demonstrations of flames produced by burning a flammable liquid, usually methanol. In all three previous cases, there was a flash back to the methanol bulk containers, and the fire engulfed members of the viewing audience. When performed safely, these demonstrations can be exciting and encourage students’ interest in chemistry. Yet, many people, including teachers, are unaware of the dangers of methanol and other flammable liquids used in the classroom.
Our safety bulletin provides four key lessons learned from the three 2014 accidents:
- Do not use bulk containers of flammable chemicals in educational demonstrations when small quantities are sufficient.
- 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 audience.
We are very troubled that these accidents continue to take place around the country. It is our hope that the lessons from our safety bulletin, and our ongoing outreach communications, will be more widely adopted so that these accidents can be avoided in the future.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.
The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Visit our website, www.csb.gov