News

State: Tighten labs in Federal Way schools

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Federal Way High School must tighten operations of its science labs, finish a chemical hygiene plan and implement better testing and monitoring of chemicals and safety equipment to ensure an accident like the Jan. 30 explosion at Federal Way High School doesn’t happen again, according to a state agency.

The Department of Labor and Industries, invited by Federal Way Public Schools to review lab safety, found five serious hazards — those that could lead to serious injury or death — in the district’s middle and high school science and chemistry labs.

That the district hasn’t implemented a chemical hygiene plan was the first hazard on the list, and probably would correct and subsequently govern the other hazards:

• Lack of adequate fume hood containment.

• Several bottles of acids and bases stored on the floor of a fume hood, obstructing airflow.

• The dispensing of an acid into an open beaker that was then carried through a doorway into a classroom.

• Failure to conduct air sampling for formaldehyde.

• Failure to test emergency showers annually and emergency eyewashes weekly.

School district personnel have until Aug. 11 to correct Labor and Industries’ findings.

Diana Seeley, the district’s risk manager, said the district “has always had a path” for chemical safety.

In 2000, the district was part of a King County program called “Rehab the lab,” during which all high schools identified and disposed of chemicals no longer needed, Seeley said.

By October 2003, implementation of a chemical hygiene plan was “at the top of (risk management’s) list,” Seeley said. “We wanted completion of a chemical hygiene plan by June 2004.”

Once completed, the plan will be districtwidefor each secondary school to tailor to its own programs. The plan will govern personal protection equipment, compliance with areas related to science, like maintenance of eyewashes, showers and fume hoods, and chemical inventory, so district personnel know how much of a chemical has been ordered and when.

As district personnel were discussing the chemical hygiene part of lab safety last year, they also set a December 2003 deadline to begin developing a plan to provide additional training for science teachers. A science and chemistry teacher training session was scheduled for March 15 this year.

On Jan. 30, Federal Way High science teacher Ingrid Lyden conducted a simple experiment in a sixth-period Principles of Science class. The experiment, intended to show how minerals contribute to colors in nature, went awry when vapors in a beaker exploded. Lyden and three students were burned.

Superintendent Tom Murphy said the district has banned that experiment until the completion of this investigation.

Lyden, a science teacher for 17 years in the district, was treated at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for serious burns. She has since returned to work.

One injured student also was treated for serious burns at Harborview. He has since transferred to another district and his family has hired an attorney.

The two other students sustained minor injuries during the explosion. They were treated and released that day at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way.

On March 15, 126 middle school and high school teachers across the district attended the safety symposium, Seeley said.

Following Labor and Industries’ findings, issued April 6, the district hired private consultant and longtime science teacher Doug Mandt to essentially audit the district’s science programs to see how the experiments conducted during science classes relate to the curriculum and the facilities, officials said.

Mandt, who started work with the district last Tuesday, also will be in charge of reviewing the pending chemical hygiene plan, and he’ll visit with each science teacher to discuss safety and compliance and to provide additional training and mentoring if he finds deficiencies.

Seeley said the district has asked Mandt to craft a job description for a new science coordinator position the district plans to create. The coordinator will deal with issues of compliance (in terms of both the chemical hygiene plan and with the Labor and Industries report) and make sure the science curriculum is designed to help students meet state testing standards, including the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).

Mandt’s contract with the district will end in June. District compliance with the state findings is due Aug. 11.

While Labor and Industries didn’t specifically investigate the explosion and Mandt wasn’t brought in to examine that specific event, Mandt’s work is intended to guide the district in preventing future, similar accidents, officials said.

Federal Way Fire Department investigators said vapors ignited, causing the explosion, but school district officials don’t know whether Lyden should have been conducting the experiment under a fume hood, or if she should have been doing the experiment at all. That’s the kind of information Mandt will give the district, Murphy said.

According to two students in the class who were present during the explosion, Lyden remarked prior to attempting the experiment that it hadn’t been working all day.

Monica Colby, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, said firefighters, too, heard similar comments from students, but a fire investigator didn’t include the comments in the final report on the accident.

Colby said the department focused more on the immediate cause of a fire — vapors coming into contact with flame, in this case — and whether it was accidental, which, in this case, it was.

Colby said further investigation into events leading up to the fire fall under the jurisdiction of the school district or Labor and Industries.

Seeley said she hadn’t directly spoken to anyone who said the teacher made prior comments about the experiment not working. She also said there wasn’t anything wrong with the chemicals Lyden used in the experiment. All were stored correctly and were current, she said.

According to the fire report, Lyden filled the beakers with a solution of water, methanol and metallic salts. She tried to light the beakers and didn’t see a flame, so she added more methanol to the beakers. When she got to the third beaker, the fire flashed, according to fire investigators.

Labor and Industries didn’t investigate the accident itself, Seeley said. Rather, the agency reviewed the safety of the district’s labs.

The risk management pool the district belongs to did investigate, but that body doesn’t release findings, she said.

There also was an internal investigation, she added, but because of possible legal action, district personnel can’t discuss some things.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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