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Six-year-old girl suffers burns in bungled science experiment

A Queensland science teacher was given a 12-month good behaviour bond after a chemistry experiment he conducted went awry and sprayed about 60 children with sodium hydroxide.

Intending to encourage an interest in science, he had undertaken the experiment at a school assembly with about 600 pupils present.

Normally, he would have had a barrier between the students and himself when conducting this experiment, as he knew there were risks. However, it was because of this very nature of the experiment that he didn’t use a barrier as it had a sense of drama about it.

The experiment involved using sodium hydroxide to dissolve aluminium. During the experiment, after the teacher had placed a lid on the bottle that contained the mixture, gases built up and the pressure they created burst open the lid, spraying sodium hydroxide on several students who had moved forward to get a closer look at the experiment.

One six-year-old girl had to be hospitalised overnight, as she had suffered superficial burns to her face and body. She later recovered without permanent injury.

In this unreported case, the teacher was held personally liable and charged with, and pleaded guilty to breaching Queensland’s WHS Act for failing in his duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent injury to others.

It is uncommon to see cases where only a wrongdoer is charged under safety legislation for a breach of their duty. Usually, the organisation is charged with failing in its duty to provide a safe place of work.

However, it was the teacher who knew:

  • sodium hydroxide is a hazardous chemical that can injure students;
  • when sodium hydroxide is mixed with aluminium, the reaction creates energy and gases which, if contained, will cause a build-up of explosive pressure; and
  • the controls for the experiment – keeping students at a distance from the experiment and not containing the chemicals.

His evident failure to exercise reasonable care to protect others serves as a useful reminder to all employers about the impact of their employees’ conduct and the risks.

But it also shows that if an organisation, like this school, has a strong and reliable safety system and an employee acts outside of those rules, the employee alone can be prosecuted.

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