Thursday, January 9, 2014

More on the Beacon School incident: FDNY finds code violations

The latest from The New York Times on the Beacon School incident, where both FDNY and state labor officials are closing the barn door after the horses have left exerting their regulatory oversight:
Fire Department investigators have cited Beacon High School in Manhattan for eight violations, finding that dangerous chemicals were being stored unsafely and that safety equipment and practices were lacking in at least three rooms. One was the makeshift lab where two students were engulfed in flames last week when a chemistry demonstration went horribly awry. 
The department gave the school, which is on the Upper West Side, 10 days to correct some of the violations of fire and building codes, and 30 days for others. But it did not issue a “cease and desist” order, which could have closed the teaching labs, James Long, a Fire Department spokesman, said on Wednesday. 
The state Labor Department is also investigating the accident and its context, state officials said, because regulations require safety equipment like chemical fume hoods when teachers handle potentially explosive flammable liquids and toxic chemicals in the workplace. There was none in Room 317, a “science demo room,” where Alonzo Yanes, 16, was badly burned when fumes from the methanol used by a teacher to burn different substances ignited. Alonzo remained in critical condition on Wednesday in the burn unit of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The other student suffered relatively minor burns. 
The Fire Department violations, issued to the principal, Ruth Lacey, also focused on the chemical storage room, Room 331; the school was ordered to immediately reduce the supply of hazardous chemicals to the amounts allowed by law, including no more than 15 gallons of flammable liquids and no more than five pounds of toxic substances. In a formal science laboratory, Room 321, the school was ordered to provide a safety shower and eye wash for decontamination, and to show that a chemical fume hood there was being tested annually for safe ventilation of dangerous fumes...
It is a funny aspect of American life that regulators always seem to show up after an incident and rarely before; also, they tend to regulate equipment and logistics rather than people*. Of all their concerns, only the fume hood would be been helpful in this particular situation.

Something tells me that New York public high schools are about to have some surprise inspections, either by FDNY or by the city Education Department. Should be interesting to follow.

*It's probably actually their statuary authority that does that.


  1. I would like to see the NY school system be pro-active in this. Alas, this is probably a pipe dream.

  2. It's easy to see where things are headed:
    1) Training teachers and purchasing adequate equipment and facilities is expensive.
    2) Watching YouTube videos is cheap.

    Sorry kids. You'll have to play with fire on your own time. Maybe this could be considered part of the flipped classroom model.

    1. when I did TAed the methanol flame experiment, my students all took out their cell phones to record the show. I tried to assure them that youtube was probably full of better quality videos of the same experiment than they could produce, but it was to no avail

  3. I like the idea of some kind of group of Chemistry Experts who go around to cities giving safety instruction and demonstrations to HS Chem teachers. I wonder how I could be involved in this?

    The other day I went for a "safety" instruction at the local community college I will teach at. Although the people were very nice and want to do their job, the instruction this mandated was minimal--all you have to do is sign a form saying you have studied a chemical hygiene plan, and look at a few power point presentations about safety. What was needed were lit fires, (small) explosions, and fire extinguisher use. That kind of stuff.

    Want to lead a grass roots effort to fix this problem, Chemjobber? Certainly if you are a process chemist you could blow-up something.("That would be cool."--Beevis)

    1. I think ACS through its Division of Chemical Health and Safety is going to be working on this. I am a member; there is discussion on its listserv (from very senior members) already on this accident and what can be done to prevent them.

    2. ....and I believe there will be a role to play for local members to get involved and help to train teachers on these issues.

    3. According to the department of education, there are over 37,000 public and private secondary schools in the country (2001 data). I think the scope of chemical safety in schools is beyond an ACS division.

    4. Pretty much. I wonder if there's room to hit the major urban school districts. That's probably the best bet and the most practical way to apply resources.

    5. Pretty much. I wonder if there's room to hit the major urban school districts. That's probably the best bet and the most practical way to apply resources.

  4. I have a feeling many chemistry instructors without a research background feel uncomfortable doing science with children. I taught high school students at a university this summer. Kids in the lab is interesting to say the least, although they are more apt to boredom/distraction than destruction. I had access to hoods and completed required safety training similar to PhD/postdoc. The university minors policy seemed to prohibit access to any 'hazardous' materials. I did order some E. coli for bacterial transformation, spoke with university biosafety, and had to complete similar paperwork to graduate school. Perhaps the boards of education should have a science safety officer who enforces all of these regulations.

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