Are there any hazardous chemicals in schools? Yes, quite a few, and some of them could be highly hazardous to staff and students! Consider science laboratories, technical education shops and art classrooms or studios, as well as the chemicals used by district maintenance and transportation staff. Very few of these chemicals are truly non-hazardous, and most of them are flammable, toxic, corrosive or at least irritating to some degree.
Relevant examples include:
- Technical education shops: toxic and flammable solvents, degreasers, and paints.
- Art Studios: silica containing dust and toxic and/or carcinogenic heavy metal-containing glazes used in pottery.
- Science labs: corrosive, water reactive sodium that may become explosive with age; highly flammable and toxic methanol that may cause blindness or even death with ingestion; highly toxic mercury that is difficult to contain, detect and clean up and is banned in Washington state.
- Custodial chemicals: potentially toxic and flammable graffiti removers; highly corrosive toilet cleaners that may burn eyes or skin; sprays that produce a fine, polluting mist that may cause respiratory irritation and increase inhalation of chemicals; disinfectants that kill living cells and may be toxic to humans.
The chemical exposure / pollution problem is often compounded by poor or inappropriate ventilation in the areas where chemicals are used. Recycled air can redistribute volatile chemicals to other areas of the building, exposing unsuspecting employees and students and degrading the quality of the indoor environment.
Federal and Washington state regulations aim to protect employee health at workplaces where hazardous chemicals are used. They have been in effect for decades, and they are mandatory for schools. Pertinent laws include:
|For Chemical Hazard Communication:
Federal: OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1200
State: L&I WAC 296-800-170
|For Laboratory Hygiene:
Federal: 29 CFR 1910.1450
State: WAC 296-828
These rules require that districts establish written, customized Hazard Communication Plans and Chemical Hygiene Plans (for laboratories). Both of these plans require that employers:
- Inform employees about the chemical hazards that they may be exposed to while performing their jobs;
- Explain how to best protect themselves;
- Choose and provide appropriate personnel protective equipment;
- Provide training before an employee starts the job and refreshers whenever the hazards change;
- Ensure that there is proper inventory, container labeling and appropriate Material Safety Data Sheets, and that the Safety Data Sheets are on file and immediately available; and
- Supervise that the rules are followed. Above and beyond the minimum mandated requirements, we recommend that districts centralize chemical purchasing for all areas. Designated, well-qualified employees need to screen chemical orders and make informed choices on the best performing AND least hazardous chemical alternatives. We also recommend that employees be restricted from bringing in and/or ordering their personal favorites.
The WCT’s Industrial Hygiene Consultant can assist districts in setting up and updating district programs, and provide up-to-date Hazard Communication and Laboratory Hygiene training. She can also assist with laboratory inspections, cleanouts, and selection of less hazardous alternatives. Please contact Elizabeth Jakab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-917-7640 for assistance.