Schools have legal obligations in relation to work health and safety and all members of staff are required to comply with these obligations. The legislation governing Hazardous Chemicals and Dangerous Goods requires that all operations and experiments involving hazardous materials must have documentation showing an assessment of the risks involved and the implementation of controls to minimise exposure or chance of an emergency.
School science departments need to also follow the policies and procedures for controlling and managing risks in their individual school. These requirements can vary across jurisdictions (i.e., states and territories) and sectors (e.g., government, catholic or independent). It is important that hazards are identified and risk assessments conducted so that relevant control measures can be put in place to reduce the level of risk. School science practical activities have the potential for a range of hazards from physical, mechanical, electrical, chemical, biological and other specific hazards related to the workplace.
Most science text books do not provide risk assessments for their experiments, whilst some give basic health & safety information. Some recent publications provide generic risk assessments, which are usually found in the teacher resource notes for the particular text. Every school is unique and their own particular situation needs to be taken into consideration when conducting a risk assessment.
In NSW Government schools, the DEC (Work Health and Safety Directorate) has developed risk management procedures to assist and guide staff in completing a risk assessment. The DEC have also developed a resource package called Chemical Safety in Schools (CSIS) that includes a risk assessment process (the DECRA protocol) which details the steps for teaching and support staff in NSW DEC schools to follow when working with chemicals. If, however, you vary your use of chemicals in ways which do not comply with the DECRA protocol, you must complete a full site-specific risk assessment. Work must be conducted within the DEC restrictions and effective control measures be implemented when required. (DEC intranet, login required.)
Science ASSIST recommends that a site-specific risk assessment be carried out for all science practicals to evaluate the activity being carried out so as to identify, assess and control any hazardous activities and/or processes. When assessing risks associated with a task, you need to consider any physical activities, the nature of the hazard itself, any equipment being used and who is involved. The person that has the best knowledge of the particular risks should carry out the risk assessment, generally, within a classroom, this is the classroom teacher, while in the preparation room, this would be the science technician. However, there may be times when a collaborative approach is more appropriate.
Science ASSIST has developed a Risk Assessment Template for schools to use see Risk Assessment Template.
For links to the health and safety legislation, see the Science ASSIST information sheet AIS: Links — Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) and for links to support materials regarding risk assessment and risk management see AIS: Links — Risk assessment and hazard management.