Lab accidents like St. Scholastica fire common in schools, expert says

Laboratory accidents, such as the one at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington that sent two young boys to hospital burn units last week, are an all-too-common occurrence, according to a nonprofit laboratory safety organization, with schools, colleges and universities experiencing significantly more accidents than the chemical industry.

Jim Kaufman, director of the Lab Safety Institute in Natick, Mass., said his organization has collected anecdotal information about 5,000 lab accidents. The flash fire that erupted at St. Scholastica’s Myth Busters Science Camp on Monday, which injured three campers and a teacher, will be added to that tally.

“It happens over and over and over again,’’ Kaufman said, noting that schools and colleges have 10 to 50 times more lab accidents than the chemical industry.

Those include incidents such as one at Western Reserve Academy, a private school in Hudson, Ohio, where 11 children were burned, including the son of the instructor, during a flame test demonstration in 2006 that involved alcohol. Two of the students were burned over more than 40 percent of their bodies, Kaufman said. The school settled out of court with those students in 2008 for $18.95 million, according to a report in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Despite the inherent dangers in laboratory work, only seven states require lab safety training for science teachers to be certified, Kaufman said, and Louisiana is not one of them.

St. Scholastica, as a parochial school, wouldn’t be bound by state requirements in any event, but Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said in an email that the policy book states that schools should have all necessary and required safety procedures in place.

At St. Scholastica, she said, labs use National Science Teachers Association standards, and the teachers all regularly attend safety trainings and seminars on a local, state and national level.

“The science department acts as safety committee in monitoring all conditions daily and holding monthly department meetings,” she said in an email.

Kaufman said that having policies and training in place is only one part of the equation — following them is another matter.

“It would be naive to think everyone is doing a great job,” he said.

He cited as an example a student in East Moline, Ill., who helped carry some materials to a storage area and took some mercury home with him, which later made him ill. That school district followed National Science Teachers Association standards, he said, which clearly state that children should not transport hazardous materials, Kaufman said.

Exactly what happened at the St. Scholastica camp Monday morning is not clear. Sarah McDonald, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said that the students, who were wearing goggles, were observing the results of an experiment performed by the teacher, and the campers did not handle any materials for the experiment.

Covington fire Chief Richard Badon said the experiment involved turning sugar into carbon by heating it with alcohol.

Brant Thompson, deputy chief for the state Fire Marshal’s Office, said that an investigation is still ongoing.

“We believe we know what happened,” he said, but would only say that children, camp counselors and a teacher were present and an experiment “was being conducted under supervision.”

The archdiocese did not answer a question about whether a shield was used, and Thompson declined to answer that question.

St. Scholastica spokeswoman Elaine Simmons said school officials made the decision not to use chemicals or flame for the remainder of the camp, which ended Friday.

The Fire Marshal’s Office is interviewing other campers who were present and still wants to talk to the boys who were injured, Thompson said.

One of the boys is 9-year-old Will Ragan, of Mandeville. His family declined to comment about the accident through the LSU Medical Center in Shreveport. The family also declined to have the hospital release information about his condition.

But Thompson said that the child is still in critical condition and remains in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, where he is on a ventilator. There are signs of improving conditions, Thompson said, and he has periods of consciousness.

Will is a member of FINS swim team in Mandeville, and his coach Beverly Salvetti said that the team is holding a car wash to raise funds for his care. The car wash is scheduled from about 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 30 at New Covenant Presbyterian Church on La. 22 in Mandeville.

The other camper, a 10-year-old boy, remains in pediatric ICU at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, where he is showing steady improvement, Thompson said. He has shown no problems with infection and is being evaluated to determine if he will need surgery, such as skin grafts.

“We see tragedies every day,” Thompson said, “but this is one of the saddest things I recall in recent times, where everyone’s trying to do a good thing, providing an opportunity to learn for a bunch of eager and interested students, and then, something like this. It’s the last thing you expect.”

Story was altered on June 24, 2013