Science Practicals: Health and Safety

Sam Holyman photo

So, its that time of year again, exam groups are going on study leave, the GCSEs and AS exams have started and we have a little breather for us to get on top of planning for next year.

One of my favourite practicals is burning magnesium ribbon.  I use it with Year 7 as an exciting chemical reaction, I use it with Year 9 when I am introducing how to balance symbol equations and it’s the perfect experiment for looking how rate of reaction changes when you increase the concentration of oxygen at GCSE.

As I was updating one of the schemes of work, I thought I’d better check the health and safety advice and see if it has changed.  To my surprise it had.  No longer are you meant to be using polarised glass, blue cobalt glass or simply looking past the burning magnesium.  This has a cost attached as I now needed to use some of my dwindling monies left in my budget to purchase a class set of specialist passive welder’s glass (shade 9).  But, interested students can look through a slit of not bigger than 1 mm made from your fingers closed together.  However, how I can get a students to burn the magnesium and observe through slitted fingers I don’t know!  This update from CLEAPSS was made in a recent bulletin 155.

This has reminded me of the importance of being ever aware of health and safety.  No matter how practiced we are at a demonstration or class practical, we should always check the most up-to-date safety advice.

CLEAPSS is an organisation which focuses on the safety of practical subjects, primarily science, art and technology in schools and colleges in the UK.  They provide hazard information and advice on practicals which is written in different formats for students, staff and technicians.  CLEAPPS are constantly researching safer methods for even the most traditional practicals and therefore I believe that it is always worth having a look at their website before you complete an experiment.

For me, I reflect on my teaching after every lesson and this time of year allows me a little space for blue sky thinking and development of the curriculum in KS3 Science.  Sometimes, I come up with ideas for practices which aren’t straight out of the CLEAPSS files.  This is when I email or call them directly and I have been impressed by the quick response to my queries.  In each case, the practical has been made safe or adapted slightly so the same teaching objective is met but under safer methods.

So, don’t be scared to try something new or modify your excising practice just make sure you are up-to-date with safety advice.  For me, I am looking forward to attending the microsale chemistry course run by CLEAPSS next month.

All the best,

Sam Holyman

Sam Holyman is Junior Science Co-ordinator at Bablake School in Coventry, and West Midlands ASE President. She is also author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE, and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning. She was recently nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practicing scientists in 2015.