An analysis of Incident/Accident Reports from the Texas secondary school science safety survey, 2001
Stephenson, Amanda L
This study investigated safety in Texas secondary school science laboratory, classroom, and field settings. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) drew a random representative sample consisting of 199 secondary public schools in Texas. Eighty-one teachers completed Incident/Accident Reports. The reports were optional, anonymous, and open-ended ; thus, they are unique in capturing the strengths and weaknesses of safety practices in school science settings as perceived by the teachers. Pertinent findings include: a) incidents and accidents (mishaps) increased from 8% to 62% as the class enrollment increased from 24 students (p 60 ft^sup 2^ per student to 1200 ft^sup 2^ to
Monday, March 11, 2002, seemed to be a typical spring day at New Berlin West High School in New Berlin, Wisconsin, until something horribly unexpected occurred during a chemistry demonstration in the school auditorium. A chemistry teacher was igniting chloride and methyl alcohol mixtures to show the variety of chloride emissions when a sudden burst of flames shot into the audience of students. Immediately, four female students suffered extensive burns to the face, neck, hands, and arms. (Hetzner, 2002). A similar event occurred in November 1999 at Waverly High School in Delta Township, Michigan, when methanol ignited as the chemistry teacher heated it in a small container. This accident severely burned a student and required her to have skin grafts (Wronski & Durbin, 2001.
Although headline-producing articles capture attention, most safety issues in the classroom, laboratory, and field are not publicized. For instance, in 2001 an Iowa middle school student inadvertently knocked over one of the graduated cylinders while taking volume measurements. No one was injured. Although incidents like this one do not make it into the headlines, such situations have the potential for more serious accidents to occur. Had the glassware shattered and struck an eye or contained a hazardous chemical, the likelihood of an injury would have increased. The same conditions that surround an incident without human injury also surround injury-causing accidents.
Mishaps in classroom, laboratory, and field activities occur with little or no warning. The first two events described were severe occurrences and are classified in this paper as “accidents.” Accidents, as defined in this study, include human injuries that take place during science activities in the classroom, lab, or field. Although these are the events we consider most important, there are numerous episodes, or “incidents,” that are less severe but equally significant in their potential to cause injury. Incidents, as defined in this study, include spills, broken glass, excessive fumes, small fires, and liquids boiling over during activities in the classroom, lab, or field that do not cause human injury. Such events include the last mishap mentioned, which involved broken glassware.
Mishaps should not prevent science teachers from conducting “active science” with their students but, instead, make teachers, administrators, students, parents, and public officials more aware of the necessity for safety in science classes. Safe hands-on laboratory and field experiences are integral to student learning (National Research Council [NRC], 1996; National Science Teachers’ Association’s [NSTA] Task Force on Science Facilities and Equipment, 1993). Sixty percent of middle school and 40% of high school lab and field instruction should be spent conducting investigations (NSTA, 1993). Similarly, at least 40% of the instructional time for Texas secondary school science students must include “hands-on laboratory investigations and field work using appropriate scientific inquiry” (Texas Administrative Code [TAC], 1998). Therefore, the extensive laboratory and field activities recommended for science literacy, and sometimes required by states, must be conducted safely.
Importance of Study
This paper reports the findings of Incident/Accident Reports from a large-scale science safety survey of secondary school science teachers in Texas. The design of the Incident/Accident Reports was based on previous research indicateing that certain factors including overcrowding, discipline, adequate science equipment and facilities, and safety training (of teachers and students), increase the number of incidents and accidents occurring in school science settings. The previous studies conducted in science safety have used localized, self-selected groups. However, this study is the first of its kind in that it statistically links these factors to mishaps. The findings of this study can be used to develop science classroom, laboratory, and field safety guidelines on a classroom, school, district, state, and national level during a time when budgets are being cut due to a weak economy and reduced local, state, and federal allocations.
More scientifically designed studies were needed in order to provide statistically credible information about specific science safety issues to state education agencies, state boards of education, and professional organizations for administrators, architects, facilities planners, and science teachers. There are no current data concerning safety in secondary school science classrooms, laboratories, and field settings in Texas, and there are few national studies. This is due in part to the following: 1) the last Texas Education Agency (TEA) safety survey occurred in 1991; 2) there is no requirement for reporting accidents; 3) there is no mandated and documented annual safety training for science teachers; and 4) there is no systematic data collection on conditions of safety in science (or other) classrooms. Additionally, new national science education standards-based requirements were implemented in Texas (TAC 19:74, 1998). A current research-based picture of today’s school science settings will provide a basis for making decisions to implement these requirements.
Although much of the literature regarding safety in school science is not recent and does not include scientifically designed studies, the reports identify factors that are consistent with anecdotes from the field and provide insight into the design for new scientifically designed studies.
Safety accidents and incidents are frequently reported in school science settings (Ward & West, 1990; West & Cielencki, 1992; Young, 1970, 1972). For example, reports on accident rates vary from 0.54 to 1.29 per week (Krajkovich, 1983; Young, 1972). Percentages of teachers reporting accidents vary from 29% to 65%, indicating the many hazards teachers face in science settings (Ward & West, 1990; West & Cielencki, 1992; Young, 1970; Young, 1972). Accidents may occur during student-involved activities while using chemicals, glassware, heat or electricity, and handling animals, as well as in teacher-involved activities such as demonstrations (Blosser, 1986).
Numerous types of injury-causing accidents occur in school science settings, but a few seem to be more common. Most accidents involve burns from handling hot objects, contact with corrosive chemicals, or cuts from broken glassware and from attempts to insert glass tubing into rubber stoppers (Krajkovich, 1983; Macomber, 1961; Ward & West, 1990). Many accidents requiring a physician’s care are due to injuries to the eye (Krajkovich, 1983; Ward & West, 1990). It is no secret that accidents occur often and have many causes. Previous reports indicate, however, that specific conditions in the school science settings increase incidents and accidents. These areas are described in the following paragraphs.
Overcrowding, due to inadequate class size, classroom space per student, and room size, appears to be a factor leading to many mishaps in science settings. Science teachers consider overcrowding to be a significant safety problem (Horton, 1988; Rakow 1989, S3; West, et al., 2001). The higher the classroom enrollment and the smaller the classroom or laboratory space, the higher the frequency and seriousness of accidents (Brennen, 1970; Macomber, 1961; Young, 1972; West, et al., 2001 ). Overcrowded conditions also increase the difficulty of properly managing classroom activities and may significantly compound safety issues.
Class size. Due to overcrowding concerns, many professional organizations recommend that class size be limited to 24 students (Council of State Science Supervisors [CSSS], 1999; National Association of Biology Teachers [NABT], 1994; National Science Educational Leadership Association [NSELA], 1996). Although there are also many state recommendations, only one state, New Hampshire, has a requirement for limiting the number of students in any one class to 24 students (New Hampshire Code of Administrative Rules, Ed 306.36). Classroom and laboratory class sizes that are greater than the design load of the facilities do not meet the standards. More importantly, environments under such conditions are potentially unsafe for students and teachers (Kaufman, 1999). Credible evidence that limited class size will likely reduce incidents and accidents is needed to make a powerful case for a class size requirement.
Classroom space per student. Students often do not have adequate individual workspace to conduct science activities safely. For example, not having enough “elbow room” was a factor contributing to an accident in which a compass held by one student penetrated the lower eyelid of a nearby student (Ward & West, 1990). Due to this safety concern, NSTA not only recommends that student enrollment be limited to 24 students but also suggests that the minimum floor space be at least 45 ft^sup 2^ per student in a pure lab and 60 ft^sup 2^ in a classroom/lab combo (Biehle, Motz, & West, 1999). Sixty-nine percent of Texas high school chemistry teachers reported not having laboratory rooms of adequate square footage for a class size of 24 students (Ward & West, 1990). Using the NSTA recommendation of 60 ft^sup 2^ per student, only 16% of Nebraska combination rooms, 9% of North Carolina high schools and 2.6% of middle schools, and 17% of Wisconsin lab/lecture combination rooms could accommodate 24 students (Gerlovich, & Parsa, 2001 ; Gerlovich, Whitsett, Lee, & Parsa, 2001; Gerlovich & Woodland, 2001; Stallings). Inadequate classroom space per student is clearly a safety concern that involves many states. However, more supportive data is needed to recommend a requirement ensuring that all schools provide at least the minimum amount of classroom space per student.
Room size. Science is taught far too often in rooms too small to accommodate the activities conducted. A range of 59% to78% of science classes were taught in rooms with less than 1000 ft^sup 2^, while about 29% were less than 750 ft^sup 2^ (Fuller, Picucci, Collins, & Swan, 2001; West et al., 2001; Gerlovich, et al., 2001; Gerlovich & Parsa, 2002). Room dimensions continue to be a key concern in science safety. NSTA recommends minimum room size measurements for school science facilities by using the gross footage per student, which is the square footage divided by the maximum number of students in any one class. For a class of 24 students a minimum of 1,440 ft^sup 2^ should be allowed for any combination classroom/laboratory, and a minimum of 1,080 ft^sup 2^ for any pure science laboratory room. Research linking inadequate room size with incidents and accidents is needed to push for strict room size requirements.
There is a need for discipline in order to maintain a safe working environment in school science settings. Horseplay in the laboratory that results from inadequate classroom discipline is a factor contributing to accidents (Krajkovich, 1983; Macomber, 1961). Science activities demand an environment free from inappropriate behavior for the safety of all of the students and the teacher. In Texas, teachers have the authority to remove a disruptive student from the classroom (Texas Education Code [TEC]: Alternative Settings for Behavior Management, Title 1,37.002, 1995). This policy is consistent with research on the effects of class size on discipline in which teachers with smaller classes reported a reduction in discipline issues (Halbach, Ehrle, Zahorik, & Molnar, 2001).
Adequate Science Equipment and Facilities
A number of safety recommendations have historically been made based on prudent practices (Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], 1991). Chemical splash-proof safety goggles are necessary to protect the eyes from liquid splashes, touching contaminated fingers to eyes, and flying objects. Due to eye protection concerns, school districts in Texas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin have regulations regarding when protective eye devices must be worn and what type of eye device should be worn for the activity (Gerlovich & Woodland, 2001; Gerlovich et al., 2001; TEC: Protective Eye Devices in Public Schools, 1995).
The prevention of electrical shock in the laboratory is another important aspect of laboratory safety. Science teachers should be aware of ignition sources and the proper use, maintenance, and storage of flammable reagents, electrical cords, outlets and ground fault interrupters. Also, an inventory of all chemicals and protective devices should be conducted (West & Cielencki, 1992). The inventory will reveal any unwanted chemicals which can be disposed of properly, and any malfunctioning safety equipment or lack of such equipment (Fuller et al., 2001; OSHA, 1991; West & Cielencki, 1991).
Safety training is paramount to promoting and maintaining a safe working environment in science settings. The OSHA Laboratory Standard (OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1450) requires the Chemical Hygiene Officer to implement a Chemical Hygiene Plan that requires safely training for teachers that includes the use of Material Safety Data Sheets (Mandt, 1995; OSHA, 1991; Young, 1997). However, not all states have adopted the OSHA standard, and many teachers have not been trained in safety (Krajkovich, 1983; Ward & West, 1990; Gerlovich et al. 2001; Stallingset al., 2001). In 1989, 61% of Texas chemistry teachers reported that they did not have any safety training (Ward & West, 1990). Another report revealed that teachers were poorly informed in several key safely areas, including understanding of ground fault interrupters, types and uses of fire extinguishers, ANSI symbol for safety goggles, and class/size limitations for laboratories (Gerlovich, 1997). Even in 1999, only 47% of teachers surveyed in Wisconsin had received safety training, and only 14% from that survey knew the purpose of Material Safety Data Sheets (Gerlovich et al., 2001).
Teachers who have had proper safety training have fewer accidents (Ward & West, 1990). When a teacher is trained in safety, such practices are modeled and passed on to the students. Student safety training generally includes teachers describing safety precautions, devoting a class period to safety, or testing students on safety (Krajkovich, 1983; Ward & West, 1990).
Design of the Instrument
The Texas Science Safety Survey is a continuation of research that began in 1989 with the development of a free response science safety survey, which formed the basis for the 1990 Laboratory Safety Survey for Chemistry (Ward & West, 1990). The pilot survey was administered to Texas chemistry teachers who were members of the Science Teachers Association of Texas (STAT). Revisions were made based on the responses, edits, and comments provided in the piloted version.
This process of editing and revising resulted in the 1990 STAT Laboratory Safety Survey (West & Cielencki, 1992). Attached to the survey was an Incident/Accident Report form that asked participants to describe any incidents or accidents that may have occurred in their classes. That instrument form was the precursor for the extensively revised 2001 Incident/ Accident Report used in this study, which is part of a larger study, the Texas Science Safety Survey, 2001.
Texas Science Safety Survey, 2001: Incident/Accident Report
The Texas Science Safety Survey, 2001, is a 187-item survey that covered several key issues including
1. Conditions of Science Teaching.
2. Teacher Certification.
3. Science Facilities.
4. Teacher Safety Training.
5. Student Safety Training.
6. Science Safety Incidents.
7. Science Safety Accidents.
8. The Greatest Hazard of Science Teaching.
In addition to the survey, an Incident/Accident report was included in each packet that was sent to a random sample of 199 secondary schools. The sample was based on district type, percentage of economically disadvantaged students on the campus, and the percentage of students of different ethnicities on campus. After completing the multiple-choice portion of the survey, the participants were provided an opportunity to describe any incidents or accidents they could recall in the Incident/Accident Report. This report was optional, open-ended, and anonymous. Respondents provided information on class size, classroom space per student, room size, injuries, the procedure followed immediately after the incident or accident, safety training, and written safety policies.
The reports are unique in capturing the strengths and weaknesses of safety practices in science classrooms, laboratories, and field sites as perceived by the teachers without inclusion of researcher bias and input.
Results and Discussion
This study indicates that there are several key areas of concern existing within science classrooms, laboratories, and field settings that link with incidents and accidents. These factors include overcrowding, poor discipline, inadequate science facilities, and lack of safety training. In addition, this study also identifies the most frequent types of accidents and the presence or absence of written safety policies. Furthermore, it is important to include both accidents and incidents when dealing with these concerns because it is in these “incident” situations where the potential lies for accidents to occur.
This study confirms data from some of the older reports surveying nonrandom samples of science teachers. Additionally, this study, unlike any of the older reports, provides statistically significant linkages between increased rates of mishaps and factors/situations in science classrooms.
Of the 856 science teachers completing the Texas Secondary Science Safety Survey, 81 also returned the Incident/Accident Reports. Sixty-five percent of the reports were from high schools and 32% were from middle schools. The conditions under which the incidents and accidents took place are summarized in Table 1. Most mishaps, 91%, occurred during the class period. Student-conducted activities accounted for 78% of mishaps, and 14% occurred during a class demonstration or laboratory preparation by a teacher. The majority, 78%, of occurrences involved only a student, and 16% affected only the teacher.
The incidents and accidents occurring in each science class subject are summarized in Table 2. Most mishaps occurred in high school classes such as biology (20%), integrated physics and chemistry (16%), and chemistry (15%)
Type of Accidents
Cuts and burns. It is important to know the types of accidents that occur most frequently in order to take precautions to prevent them. A total of 59 accidents were reported, resulting in 62 injuries. Over two-thirds of the injuries (67%) were due to cuts and burns (Table 3). The cuts (44%) reported involved broken glassware and scalpels. The burns (23%) were mostly related to touching hot objects and glassware, and others were due to contact with chemicals. These findings are consistent with the previous research. Many accidents result in cuts fron; broken glass tubing and glassware and burns from hot objects and glassware (Krajkovich, 1983; Macomber, 1961; Ward & West, 1990). Therefore, both teacher and student safety training should give specific instruction on the safe handling of sharp objects, glassware, and corrosive chemicals.
Chemicals in the eye. Eleven percent of injuries involved chemicals in the eye (Table 3). Accidents involving chemicals in the eye are a key concern, primarily because the eyes can be seriously injured in a very short period of time. Eye injuries are among those commonly requiring a physician’s care (Krajkovich, 1983). Ward and West (1990) found that 9% of the 87 accidents reported involved injuries to the eye that included chemicals being rubbed or splashed into the eyes.
Interestingly, although 11% of the accidents in this survey involved injury to the eyes, when asked to identify contributing factors to the accident, only 6% of the survey respondents reported that “failing to wear goggles” contributed to the accident (Table 4). However, school districts in several states are required to adopt rules stating when protective eye devices must be worn and the type of device required for the activity (Gerlovich, 2001; Gerlovich et al., 2001; TEC: Protective Eye Devices in Public Schools, 1995). Such rules apply to everyone (teachers, students, and other individuals) observing a science activity that requires the use of protective eye devices.
Electrical shock. Electrical shock seems to be a safety issue that has commonly been overlooked. Surprisingly, 8% of the accidents reported involved shock (Table 3). Students experienced minor or major shock by inserting paperclips and pencil lead into power outlets. NSTA (Biehle et al., 1999) recommends that science labs have master and emergency cut-offs. Science teachers should be aware of ignition sources and the proper use, maintenance, and storage of flammable reagents, electrical cords, outlets, and ground fault interrupters, mainly with emphasis on fire prevention. However, it is also important to know that location of outlets, electrical cords, and ground fault interrupters (Gerlovich, 2001) to prevent needless accidents from occurring.
The remaining 14% of the reports involved various injuries that included head injuries, broken bones, injuries from animals, and fumes.
Thirty percent of the respondents reported overcrowding was a factor contributing to incidents and accidents in their classrooms (Table 4). Many schools are not providing adequate space for conducting science activities, which is the most important factor in designing safe science facilities (Biehle et al., 1999, p. 21). Most safety literature identifies overcrowding as a serious classroom and laboratory safety issue (Kaufman, 1999; Gerlovich et al., 2001; Ward & West, 1990). This finding is strongly supported by the research cited concerning class size and individual workspace. The larger the class size and the less space per student, the higher the frequency of accidents (Brennan, 1970; Macomber, 1961; Young, 1972). Of 856 science teachers who responded to the Texas Science Safety Survey, 2001, 60% identified overcrowding as the single greatest hazard they face in their own classrooms (West, 2002).
Class size. As class enrollment increased so did the number of mishaps (Figure 1). The majority, 62%, of the mishaps in science settings occurred in classes consisting of more than 24 students. As class size decreased, incidents and accidents also decreased.
Historically, accidents increase with increased class enrollment (Brennan, 1970; Macomber, 1961; Young, 1972). For this reason several professional organizations have recommended that class size be limited to 24 students (CSSS, 1999; NABT, 1994; NSELA, 1996; NSTA, 1993). However, when closely examining all of the research available, one will find that there is no magic number that will ensure that no mishaps will occur. The key is to “maintain a safe environment” (Rakow, 1989). It is not the “average” class size that should be limited; a maximum enrollment should be set for any class using the science facilities to make the class or laboratory setting safe for students and teachers.
Classroom space per student. Fewer mishaps occurred when more square footage per student was provided (Figure 2). Two-thirds, 66%, of incidents and accidents occurred when less than 45 ft^sup 2^ per student was provided. When the amount of space per student increased to more than 60 ft^sup 2^, the percentage of incidents and accidents decreased to 11%.
Many schools are not providing the recommended amount of footage per student in science rooms (Gerlovich et al., 2001; Stallings et al., 2001; Ward & West, 1990; Young, 1970). The recommendations are the minimum and many do not provide even the smallest amount of acceptable classroom space per student, 45 ft^sup 2^ in a pure lab and 60 ft^sup 2^ in a combination classroom/laboratory suggested by NSTA. More strict guidelines for individual workspace per student must be set and enforced.
Room size. As room size increased, the percentage of incidents and accidents decreased (Figure 3). This study found that almost half, 47%, of science classes are being taught in rooms of less than 800 ft^sup 2^ (Figure 3). Another 21% of classes are taught in rooms of 801 to 1,000 ft^sup 2^. Only 11% of rooms had more than 1,200 ft^sup 2^. It seems these figures are not uncommon (Fuller, 2001; West et al., 2001). The room sizes from this study are far smaller than the recommendations, assuming that there is a maximum of 24 students in these classes. Even though this study did not inquire about the room type (combination classroom/lab or pure lab), these room size measurements are below the minimum NSTA recommendations for both room types.
Factors Contributing to Incidents and Accidents
The factors contributing to incidents and accidents are summarized in Table 4. The participants were free to select more than one contributing factor. The top two contributing factors related to classroom management. Forty-one percent of the 81 respondents reported that the students’ “failure to follow instructions” contributed to the accidents in their classrooms, and 36% reported that “student misbehavior” was a contributing factor.
Similarly, Macomber (1961) and Krajkovich (1983) found that horseplay in the laboratory resulting from inadequate classroom discipline is a contributing factor to accidents. Having good classroom management is crucial to maintaining a safe classroom, laboratory, and field setting for hands-on science activities. Classroom discipline must be enforced early on by the teacher, school, and the district, maintaining rules and consequences if those rules are broken.
Several factors contributing to mishaps involving science equipment and facilities were identified. “Faulty or inadequate equipment” was reported by 12% as one contributing factor, “unsafe room design” by 7%, “failure to wear goggles” by 6%, and “non-science room” by 4% of the participants.
Nine percent reported that “inadequate procedures,” or instructions, were a cause of mishaps. Only 1% of the respondents reported that “inadequate teacher safety training” was a factor contributing to incidents and accidents.
The survey respondents were asked if they had any safety training within the last year. Most of the respondents, 62%, said they had some type of safety training in the last year (Table 5). However, 35% of teachers in the study did not have any type safety training within the last year.
Safety training of teachers is required by federal law in the Chemical Hygiene Plan (OSHA 29CFR 1910.1450) in states choosing to comply with OSHA regulations (OSHA, 1991). However, even those under state law, in all states except Missouri, safety training of teachers is required (Flinn, 2002). Furthermore, many studies have shown that many teachers across the United States have not been trained in safety (Gerlovich, et al., 2001; Krajkovich, 1983). Teachers who have safety training have fewer accidents in their classrooms (Ward & West, 1990). It is imperative that all districts provide adequate annual safety training for teachers in order to ensure that they understand safety policies and procedures.
Written Safety Policy
The participants were asked if their science department had a written safety policy. Although 69% of teachers were aware of written safety policies, 25% of the teachers said that their science department did not have a written safety policy (Table 6). The lack of department level policies may indicate a lack of written safety policies at the district level. Many states have regulations that meet the OSHA and/or state right-to-know requirements concerning this issue. Such regulations require that the employer develop a written safety policy, and each employee should be trained as to its contents. State right-to-know laws consist of written hazard assessment procedures, material safety data sheets (MSDS), labels and warnings, and employee training (Gerlovich, 1997; Reat, 1996). Laboratories must have a written Chemical Hygiene Plan that must be updated annually (OSHA, 1991). Districts not having these written policies in place are in violation of the either the state or federal requirements.
The following recommendations are based on the findings of this study and the research findings from the studies previously cited. Immediate actions that can be taken by school districts include:
1. Limit the size of classes to a maximum of 24 students.
2. Maintain a minimum of 60 ft^sup 2^ per student in classroom/lab rooms and 50 ft^sup 2^ in a pure laboratory.
3. Develop and enforce a written safety policy that includes a strict discipline policy for student misbehavior.
4. Employ teachers who are trained in safety and science classroom management.
5. Provide or require annual safety training for science teachers.
The following recommendations are long-term actions that school districts may use in the development of safe science facilities:
1. Care fully calculate the science education needs for the future.
2. Make accurate financial projections that will ensure an adequate funding level to build an adequate number of science rooms.
3. Design safe science facilities.
This study is unique on many levels. Most studies have not used open-ended questionnaires, but used forced-choice instruments to solicit teacher responses about safety. In this study, The Incident/Accident Reports were anonymous, were open-ended, and allowed the participants from a large random sample to report the strengths and weaknesses of safety practices in their science classrooms, laboratories, and field sites without researcher biases. No other safety study of mishaps has been conducted in this manner. As a result, the data collected has allowed us to assess the current conditions under which science classes are taught and to identify specific circumstances that provide some statistically significant linkage with mishaps in school science-related activities. The findings of this study are part of a research base that can be used for decisions on safety policies, new safety standards, and legislation at the school, district, state, and national levels. Such information can aid in science facility design and construction, discipline in science classes, teacher safety training, development and enforcement of safety policies, and teacher preparation and certification.
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Amanda L. Stephenson, Sandra S. West, Julie F. Westerlund, and Nancy C. Nelson Texas State University
Editors’ Note: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sandra S. West, Biology Department, Texas State University, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666.
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