Civil suit filed against University of Hawaii for lab explosion
Jan25

Civil suit filed against University of Hawaii for lab explosion

From my story in C&EN last week: An injured postdoctoral researcher and her spouse have filed a civil suit against the University of Hawaii (UH) and others involved for a 2016 explosion in which the researcher lost one of her arms. At the time of the incident, postdoc Thea Ekins-Coward was preparing a gas mixture of 55% hydrogen, 38% oxygen, and 7% carbon dioxide to feed to bacteria to produce biofuels, according to a report issued by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS). The center was hired by UH to investigate the incident. The gases were combined in an ungrounded 49-L steel tank designed for compressed air, not for hazardous gases. UCCLS concluded that a static discharge most likely caused the explosion. Ekins-Coward lost her right lower arm and elbow and suffered corneal abrasions, facial burns, and loss of high frequency hearing from nerve damage to her ears, according to a civil complaint filed with a Hawaii court on Jan. 9. Ekins-Coward worked for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. The defendants named in the suit are UH; Jian Yu, the principal investigator of the lab in which Ekins-Coward worked; and Richard E. Rocheleau, director of the institute. From the suit itself: Defendants, and each of them, had a duty to train, warn and provide proper equipment to Thea Ekins-Coward, and to follow all applicable safety codes, standards, and regulations for the laboratory and for the type of experiments being conducted in the laboratory. Defendants, and each of them, negligently, grossly negligently, carelessly and recklessly breached their duty by providing unsafe and improper equipment, by failing to provide adequate training, by failing to follow safety codes, standards and regulations in laboratory safety, by directing THEA EKINS-COWARD to undertake experiments that were inherently and unnecessarily unsafe, by failing to make reasonable inspection of the equipment, and by failing to warn of any inadequacy of the equipment or the possible dangerous condition. These are the specific claims: Personal injury Negligence Gross negligence Failure to warn Dangerous condition of public property Negligent infliction of emotional distress Intentional infliction of emotional distress Loss of consortium The court filing says that “plaintiffs pray that judgment be entered against defendants jointly and severally for reasonable expenses of injury, special and general damages, pre-judgment and postjudgment interest, costs, attorneys’ fees and such other relief as the Court deems just,” but doesn’t give a specific amount of...

Read More
Equipment supplier, engineer fined for death at Texas A&M University at Qatar
Dec27

Equipment supplier, engineer fined for death at Texas A&M University at Qatar

A Qatar court has determined sentences for a supplier of petroleum engineering equipment and one of its employees for a 2014 explosion that killed Texas A&M University in Qatar lab technician Hassan Kamal Hussein, Doha News reports. The court fined the company approximately $5,500 and the employee $2,700. “both guilty parties were ordered to pay [$54,900] to Hussein’s family members in blood money,” the Doha News story says. The company is identified as “Interventions,” which might be Intervention Rentals. Hussein was working with equipment to produce gasoline from natural gas, and a natural gas leak likely led to the explosion. The company and employee were charged with involuntary manslaughter, according to an earlier Doha News story. Hussein was survived by a wife and four children, who were between ages six and 12 when he died, Doha News...

Read More
“Safety is always in season”
Oct13

“Safety is always in season”

When I reflect on my department’s safety training, I realize that too often we send a message to students that we need to behave safely to avoid getting into trouble. “Wear your goggles so you don’t get yelled at.” “Dispose of your waste properly so we don’t get fined.” “No food or drink in the lab so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t shut us down.” Those perspectives cater to the idea that chemists and chemistry make problems, and they instill a culture of compliance rather than a culture of safety. In reality, many of us went into chemistry to solve problems, and being safe is an important component of creating that problem-solution environment. Safety should be a positive identity issue. I am a chemist, so of course I strive to be as safe as I can be. Being safe chemists requires that every one of us own the responsibility for safety. Safety should not be delegated to a set of rules made by a designated safety officer; it should be the concern and responsibility of every person who works in a lab or is part of a process. For example, in the semester when my co-instructor for an advanced lab class was pregnant, I impressed on the students that it was everyone’s responsibility, not just hers, to make sure that she was not accidentally exposed to hazardous chemicals. We should not only be safe as individuals, but we should each contribute energetically and enthusiastically to the safety of the entire community. So writes Laura Pence, a chemistry professor at the University of Hartford and the director of the American Chemical Society’s District I, in a comment in C&EN this week. Read the full piece to see what else she has to say. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t link to the resources she mentions, but they’re all available on the Committee on Chemical Safety’s...

Read More
University of Hawaii fine lowered 40% for lab explosion
Oct12

University of Hawaii fine lowered 40% for lab explosion

From my story at C&EN: The University of Hawaii last week settled its case with the Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division (HIOSH) regarding a laboratory explosion in March. The settlement reduces the number of violations from 15 to nine and the fine from $115,500 to $69,300. … The settlement agreement combines similar violations, including two regarding laboratory exits and, separately, four centering on an inadequate chemical hygiene plan. The reduction in overall number of violations, which were assessed the maximum state penalty of $7,700 each, resulted in the reduced fine. The agreement also revised some wording in the violation descriptions. Go read the story for more, including a list of the violations identified by HIOSH. The settlement agreement is posted here, and a copy of the original citation document with changes marked is...

Read More
Students suffered burns, eye injuries at Donghua University
Sep28

Students suffered burns, eye injuries at Donghua University

Three Donghua University graduate students in the School of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, & Bioengineering were injured in an incident involving potassium permanganate, according to the university and local news reports. The university says in a Sept. 23 post on the microblogging site Weibo that the incident is still being investigated. Two of the students were taken to the hospital, where they were treated for facial burns and eye injuries, the Sept. 23 post says. One of the two hospitalized students required eye surgery and further treatment. The third injured student received abrasions and was not hospitalized, the University posted on Sept. 21. The Sigma-Aldrich Safety Data Sheet for potassium permanganate notes that it is an oxidizer that can cause skin corrosion and serious eye damage. It is also toxic if consumed orally by humans. I’ve e-mailed the dean of the Donghua School Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, & Bioengineering to find out more about the incident, but so far he has not responded to me. If anyone who reads Chinese would like to go through the 44 pages of comments of Weibo and let me know if there’s any more information there, I’d welcome...

Read More
University of Hawaii faces $115,500 fine for lab explosion
Sep27

University of Hawaii faces $115,500 fine for lab explosion

From my story at C&EN: The University of Hawaii faces a total $115,500 fine for 15 workplace safety violations after a laboratory explosion in March on the university’s Manoa campus. Postdoctoral researcher Thea Ekins-Coward, who worked for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, lost one of her arms in the explosion. You can read the rest here, including a full list of the citations. All of the citations were labeled as “serious” and given the maximum state penalty of $7,700 each. Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) watchers will look at that $7,700 number and wonder why it’s so low. Earlier this year, OSHA increased its maximum penalty for a serious violation to $12,471. States that operate their own occupational safety and health plans are required to match or meet the federal civil penalties. Hawaii has not yet updated its civil penalties because the federal guidance was issued too late in the Hawaii legislative session this year, Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division spokesman William G. Kuntsman says. For more about the OSHA fine increases and other ways the agency is looking to strengthen consequences for companies that endanger workers, see my story from earlier this year, “Chemical employers to face tougher worker safety...

Read More