Learn how flame resistant lab coats can help protect your teachers and students, and determine whether they’re right for your lab safety program.

We don’t often hear about the dangers in university labs. A lab safety incident inspired the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to create a 2006 safety message highlighting the story of Calais Weber, a 15-year-old boarding school student in Ohio.

The Rainbow Flame Experiment

At the time, Weber attended her chemistry class where the teacher initiated a demonstration of what is commonly termed the “Rainbow Flame Experiment.” This presentation calls for a flammable liquid like methanol, an accelerant, to be poured into several small dishes containing various chemicals. The teacher then ignites the mixtures to create a “rainbow” of flames across the desk.

Each combination of chemicals produces a different color in the light spectrum at ignition. Lithium chloride, barium chloride, lead nitrate, copper sulfate, potassium chloride, borax and even salt are the common chemicals used by science and chemistry teachers for this demonstration.

In Weber’s case, the Rainbow Flame Experiment took a tragic turn when the flame in one of the small dishes faded. The teacher reportedly picked up a gallon full of a clear liquid (later determined to be methanol) from the nearby sink and proceeded to refuel the open flame within the dish. This action then resulted in a flash fire and deflagrations of the mixtures that left Weber with burns to more than 40 percent of her body. Other students sustained burn injuries as well. Weber and her fellow students did not wear protective gear suitable for the hazards present in this educational environment. No safety eye wear, no gloves, no flame resistant lab coats — nothing but their regular school clothes.

Flame Resistant Lab Coats

The safety of teachers and students in the educational process is just as important as the safety of workers in industrial environments. A quick search engine review of the terms “high school laboratory fire” and “university laboratory fire” is a reminder that fires often occur in educational settings. Sometimes these fires are devastating and their impact on students, teachers and their families can be reduced through the use of engineered procedures and appropriately rated personal protective equipment, such as chemical-splash protection or flame resistant lab coats.

Flame resistant clothing can help protect the wearer against the propagation of fire onto the body. Chemical-splash protective garments help protect the wearer against chemical burns caused by inadvertent chemical-splash. Keeping the chemicals or fire from making skin contact may limit personal injury.

A protective lab coat from a reputable manufacturer may offer the wearer the following benefits:

Does not melt onto skin
Self-extinguishes/resists ignition
Provides thermal insulation from the fire’s heat
Reduces burn injuries/increases the chances of survival
Resists breaking apart and exposing skin
Reduces potential for chemical burns

According to the American Burn Association (ABA), 486,000 burn injuries received medical treatment in a 2011 U.S. Center for Disease Control report. The ABA also reports that between 2005 and 2014, 43 percent of burn admissions to burn centers were due to fire/flame.

Lab safety focuses on reducing risk, which can be accomplished through the design and implementation of a comprehensive and effective safety management system. This can help protect your people and property. An element of an effective safety management system is a job hazard analysis. This process, in part, evaluates risks against controls, where one offsets the other.

When working in a high school or university lab environment where exposure to pyrophoric chemicals, fire or flame is possible, consider the benefits of using chemical-splash protection and flame resistant lab coats. Protective wear as well as an effective safety management system can help you minimize the impact of an undesired event at your facility.

Lee Polevoi

J.A. Rodriguez Jr., CSP, is the CEO of Make My Day Strategies LLC and a global Fortune 100 senior manager. Rodriguez was honored to be selected by EHS Today Magazine as one of "The 50 People Who Most Influenced environmental, health and safety in 2012-2013" and "2014 - 2015."