Never mind the occasional small accident: it was all good fun and the laissez-faire teacher, or the over-experimental enthusiast usually got away with a near miss.
But times have changed, and teachers of science and technology in all schools - from nursery through to sixth-form colleges - need to be aware of the implications of recent health and safety regulations. These regulations, introduced in 1992 under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, and in response to EU directives, have considerably tightened up and extended the legal side of workplace safety.
Since January 1993 every area of the workplace and every procedure - from the use of kitchen knives and cleaning fluids to leaking sinks - must be assessed for risks. What was implicit before must now (within reason) be recorded in writing, alongside any measures taken to reduce or eliminate the hazard.
Andy Piggott, previously a science advisory teacher in Richmond, now an education consultant advising on health and safety, has been doing science safety audits in schools in Bedfordshire. He has written science codes of practice for Richmond primary and secondary schools which he will introduce at the Association for Science Education's annual meeting next week. Emphasising that the key to good practice is management, he points out that the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) regulations form only part of all risk assessment.
Whereas the dangers of such substances as bleach, and what to do if you drink it, are covered by the Hazcards produced by CLEAPSE (Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Equipment), what the cards do not cover is the chance of anyone doing so. That is where these new regulations come in.
In primary classrooms much safety practice is good organisation and awareness of child nature, but teachers still need guidance. To cover the tools and materials used in primary schools, Mr Piggott has developed Hazcards which advise on their appropriate and safe use, storage, and first aid.
Creating a health and safety culture among teachers and their pupils is an important aim. The highly publicised canoeing accident in Lyme Bay has alerted people to the tragic consequences of neglecting proper safety procedures. The manslaughter conviction in the subsequent court case underlined the employer's responsibility for safety. But everyone, not just the employer, has a "duty of care" in this respect.
Science and technology practical work is safe when everyone is vigilant, aware of potential hazards, and takes appropriate precautions. The same applies to the work of science and technology technicians. Whether old-style laboratories are healthy places to work in is another question.
Science teachers and primary science co-ordinators attending the ASE meeting at Lancaster University, January 5-7, can update their knowledge of safety management at these events:
o Primary children can manage their own health and safety? Sponsored workshop. Thursday and Friday at 3.30pm. Leader Jim Floyd of NIAS (Northamptonshire Inspection and Advisory Service)
o Primary classroom code of practice for health and safety. Talk T32, Thursday 3pm. Andrew Piggott, APEC Educational Consultancy o Managing Science Departments and People. Inset course W27, Friday 9.30am.
Leaders: Mike Evans, Hampshire Science adviserinspector and Ian Richardson, education consultant
o Managing Health and Safety in the Science Department. Talk T51, Friday 9am. Andrew Piggott,
o Safety Association for Education. Exhibition LT4.
CLEAPSE School Science Service. Exhibition LT4