Chinese university lab safety–not that different from the U.S.?

An explosion in Tsinghua’s Ho Tim chemistry building killed researcher Xiangjian Meng on Dec. 18. Credit: Rolex Dela Peña/EPA/Newscom

An explosion in Tsinghua’s Ho Tim chemistry building killed researcher Xiangjian Meng on Dec. 18.
Credit: Rolex Dela Peña/EPA/Newscom

From Chemistry World, a look at the safety culture of Chinese university labs following the death of postdoctoral researcher Xiangjian Meng from a hydrogen explosion:

The Tsinghua accident is not an isolated incident. On 5 April 2015, a gas explosion killed one graduate student and injured four others in a chemistry lab at the China University of Mining and Technology located in the eastern Chinese city of Xuzhou. On 22 September 2015, a Peking University chemistry building caught fire after a hydrogen tank leaked. The fire did not result in any injuries. A fire that broke out at a lab at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology last Monday was blamed on ageing equipment.

I found it interesting that people interviewed for the Chemistry World story said that lab safety culture is better elsewhere–but several of the examples cited as problems in China can certainly be said about many U.S. labs as well:

The fact that Meng was working alone points to a poor safety culture at the lab. There should be at least two people working in a lab in case of an accident, Luo tells Chemistry World. [Note: Chemistry World does not cite a source for Meng working alone, and I have not heard that from the university] …

Yin says that awareness of lab safety and training is very weak among Chinese researchers. She notes that researchers are sometimes reluctant to wear gloves and safety glasses to allow them to work without hindrance. …

Wang Xiaojun, a professor of environmental chemistry at Guangzhou-based South China University of Technology, says that the lack of funding for lab infrastructure has hampered some lab heads’ efforts to make their workplaces safer. Researchers are left sometimes having to use their own funding to install safety equipment. This can leave some lab heads having to choose between safety and their own research. …

But Luo says, besides research grants, most universities in China were allotted flexible budgets for infrastructure. ‘The problem is lab safety has never been prioritised.’ …

One day before the Tsinghua accident, the education ministry urged universities and schools to carry out safety inspections. After the accident, the ministry launched a nationwide lab safety examination. But Luo says that campaign-style safety examinations do no good for lab safety. ‘The most likely action during nationwide [safety] inspections is to ensure the reliability of instruments, without considering the dynamic and flexible demands of research,’ Luo says. He suggests integrating safety training with experimental demands and lab safety management. …

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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