Make America’s classroom and workplaces safe again

It happened again.

A dozen kids sat on the floor in a Texas church school recently, watching a teacher show them a "fun" science experiment. The teacher took some boric acid, put it in a beaker, then poured in methanol from a jug. A swirling rainbow-like flame jumped up in the canister. The kids wanted to see it again. So the teacher poured in more methanol.

This time, the flame soared, splashed out of the canister and burned eleven kids. In the rush to run away, the kids trampled another. Six wound up in the hospital.

It's not the first time so-called "rainbow" experiments have gone awry. 

Chemicals are dangerous.

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As board members of a nonprofit focusing on safety in STEM education, we know too well how often they can burn, maim— and kill —people. We also know why. Too many students, workers, or supervisors, don't have enough training in safety.

 

That's why it is so maddening to see deep cuts in President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE’s just-released Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget — and an end to OSHA's imaginative Susan Harwood Training Program. 

We urge Congress to restore the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program — and more.

The Administration may think workers and kids are safe around chemicals.

They aren't.

In 2011, over 17,000 men and women suffered injuries working for chemical companies. In academic institutions,  35,800 people suffered injuries.

In state and local governments, the figure was around 285,000.

That's why we value the Harwood grants.

For 10 years, the program has awarded urgently needed grants for lab safety. Harwood grants don't just go for workshops. They train men and women to train others. They focus on hazardous industries and less educated workers. Since 1978 they've helped nonprofits train two million workers.

Do they cost too much?

We spend about $11 million each year on these grants. Our country spends that much on defense every 10 minutes.

Its critics call the Harwood grants "inefficient." 

They might talk to people at the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health. They set out to train vulnerable workers with limited English. They met their goal last year—3 months early.  That sounds efficient to us.

"We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good,” says White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney. 

He might ask the Georgia Technical Research Institute. They used a Harwood so workers could safely research the H1N1 virus.

That not only sounds good. It is good.

Do lab workers already know the hazards of their work?

No.

Researchers surveyed 2,400 scientists a while back, 86 percent of whom believed their labs were safe. 

How many had had injuries in these "safe" labs?

About half.

They inhaled dangerous chemicals, performed tasks with no training, and worked alone in their labs–the "lone worker" practice safety experts have decried for decades. The fact is, there exists too little culture of safety in America's schools or in manufacturing plants. To teach science, most states require no training at all.

And let us remember: safety around chemicals involves more than injuries. Last year marked the tenth anniversary of a death we will never forget: that of Karen Wetterhahn, the distinguished Chemistry Department Chair at Dartmouth.

In 1996, she spilled a drop or two of dimethylmercury on a latex-gloved hand. She thought the latex protected her. She was wrong. She sank into a coma and died. 

"How could she have known this?" one journalist asked.

The answer: by calling NIOSH which had all the information she needed including the phrase "use impervious protective equipment."

If such a distinguished chemist didn't know enough, isn't that a signal to demand more training not less?

"We will do more with less," Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta asserted at the hearing where he tried to defend the OSHA cuts.

"You can only do less with less," replied one Congresswoman.

In theory, both are possible. But without a shred of evidence we shouldn't believe the Secretary. Especially when the evidence supporting these grants is so strong.

Preventing that accident in Texas wouldn't have taken much. A trained teacher would have  known there was no need for a jug of methanol.

A one-ounce container and a barrier between the chemicals and kids would have kept them safe. Training might not have covered that specific example but it teaches supervisors to research what they don't know.

So we hope Congress restores the Susan Harwood grants—and mandates training for anyone using dangerous materials.

Make America great? Let's start by making us safe.

Congress has the power. It also has an obligation — for those in the workplace, those in college labs, and twelve innocent kids in preschool hurt by a well-meaning teacher we know how to help. 

James Kaufman is a former chemistry professor at Curry College and the president, CEO and founder of the Laboratory Safety Institute, which has trained 100,000 men and women in 30 countries. LSI Board Member Robert Lehrman, former Congressional and White House aide, who teaches at American University. Lehrman’s work has appeared in The Hill.


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