“They appear confident that what happened to other people won’t happen to them”
Jul21

“They appear confident that what happened to other people won’t happen to them”

Looking at this story about a particular bluff in Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, is there an analogy to be made about research lab safety? The “Pedestal Rock” is on a notorious sandstone bluff at Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, which is fenced off and bordered by signs warning people not to go there. Seven people have died in the area since 2009. Six fatal falls have taken place during the past two years. Rescue efforts by the local fire district and U.S. Coast Guard cost upward of $21,000 per hour, often topping out near $106,000. Yet people continue to flood past the fence and signs. Adults, teenagers, grandparents, photographers and even parents with small children disregard the warnings. “We’re not seeing much confusion about what the current signs and fence mean,” said Chris Havel, spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “Even people who are aware of the deaths walk right past the fence and signs into that area. They appear confident that what happened to other people won’t happen to them.” … Starting last month, [Park Ranger Lisa Stevenson] patrols the fence at Cape Kiwanda. Leading with friendliness and facts, she looks to start a dialogue rather than a confrontation, even when people don’t want to hear it. h/t...

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Gas cylinder storage at the University of Hawaii
Jul13

Gas cylinder storage at the University of Hawaii

When C&EN published my story about the fire department investigation into the explosion at the University of Hawaii (UH) that cost postdoc Thea Ekins-Coward one of her arms, we got many comments about whether or how the gas cylinders were secured. The fire department report and photos had little information about that issue. The University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS) report released on July 1, however, devotes a section of its recommendations to how gas cylinder safety could be improved at UH. Note that Honolulu is not at high risk for earthquakes–according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s roughly equivalent to Sacramento or Las Vegas. Consequently, things that Coastal California scientists might need to do, such as double-strapping cylinders, are not required. That said, there was still room to do better. This group of ten cylinders, for example, which included hydrogen, carbon dioxide, helium, and carbon monoxide: Was secured as: Comments UCCLS: The typical gas cylinder clamp with cloth strap is only designed to support a single cylinder. Thus, a cluster of ten cylinders should be in a dedicated gas rack. Second, only cylinders of similar size should be secured together. Securing large and small cylinders together results in one cylinder size being secured at the wrong height. (Technical report, page 9) As for the two oxygen cylinders: UCCLS says: ● Both oxygen cylinders were strapped to the biosafety cabinet with a safety strap as required by OSHA and CGA P-1. However, the safety straps of both cylinders loosened as a result of the force of the explosion. Although not required by HIOSH, chaining gas cylinders presents a safer option. ● One of the oxygen cylinders was open when the explosion occurred and vented its gas content into the laboratory. However, it did not cause an oxygen enriched fire which would have led to more damage and possibly cause the adjacent oxygen cylinder that was closed to vent through the CG-1 (Rupture disk) pressure relief device. (Technical report, page 30) In another lab, UCCLS found this one, captioned “Gas cylinder attached to an adjustable shelf in a bookcase.” I don’t know which lab this was in, but judging from the mess on the floor and exposed insulation at the back, I’m guessing it was one of the labs adjacent to the one in which the explosion happened. The report notes that for two adjacent labs, cabinets were blown off the walls. UCCLS’s overall guidance on gas cylinder storage and use (Recommendations report, pages 7 to 10): Gas cylinders should be restrained by chains secured to a wall with Unistrut steel bars. In earthquake areas there should be...

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Second investigation report released regarding U Hawaii explosion
Jul01

Second investigation report released regarding U Hawaii explosion

Earlier today, the University of Hawaii released a second investigation report into the lab explosion that caused a postdoctoral researcher to lose one of her arms. This report was by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety; the first was by the Honolulu Fire Department. Still to come is the one by the Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division. At the time of the explosion, postdoctoral researcher Thea Ekins-Coward had just finished combining hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen gases from high-pressure cylinders into a lower pressure container. The mixture was to be used as a feedstock to grow bacteria to produce bioplastics and biofuels. I’ve only made it through a quick read of the technical part of the report so far, but here are some quotes: This report was written to serve as a direct call to action for researchers, administrators and EHSO staff not only at the UH, but at all institutions of higher education that conduct research. The recommendations and lessons learned contained herein should be understood and addressed at all universities in order to help prevent laboratory accidents. (page 5) From the beginning of February until March 16, 2016 the gas storage tank was filled eleven times with varying H2:O2:CO2 mixtures, all in the explosive range, with pressures between 37 and 117 psig (1 atm = 14.7 psig). The experiments were reviewed by the PI and the postdoctoral researcher weekly to discuss improvements of the bacterial culture conditions. They assumed the process to be safe since they stayed well below the maximum pressure for which the gas storage tank was rated (140 psig). The lab received a laboratory safety inspection in January 2016, however, the use of the gas storage tank was not questioned because the inspection used a typical checklist focusing on storage of chemicals and chemical waste, gas cylinder storage, laboratory fume hood certification, and documentation of training. (page 6) In fact, before accepting the postdoctoral researcher into his lab the PI sent out a written interview that contained the following question: “What was your duty and responsibility for the Environmental Health and Safety in the laboratories?” … Including safety questions in an interview enables a PI to examine general safety perceptions and attitude of a candidate, which is not commonly done. The Investigative Team is not aware of guidelines for incorporating safety questions into such an interview process, hence the safety concern reflects the PI’s genuine interest in laboratory safety. (page 9) [The postdoc’s] interest in safety as it directly related to the experiments she conducted were expressed in meeting notes from 10/21/2015. These also reflect her safety training in the United...

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When is something an accident?
Jun15

When is something an accident?

This New York Times story from May reminded me of some people’s distaste for calling laboratory incidents “accidents”: It’s No Accident: Advocates Want to Speak of Car ‘Crashes’ Instead Roadway fatalities are soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years, resulting from crashes, collisions and other incidents caused by drivers. Just don’t call them accidents anymore. That is the position of a growing number of safety advocates, including grass-roots groups, federal officials and state and local leaders across the country. They are campaigning to change a 100-year-old mentality that they say trivializes the single most common cause of traffic incidents: human error. “When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’ ” Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a driver safety conference this month at the Harvard School of Public Health. … Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word “accident” conveys, they said. The semantics of accident came up around the Honolulu Fire Department investigation report about the University of Hawaii explosion. The fire department called the event an “accident” because the explosion wasn’t set off intentionally. But the University of Hawaii lab was working with a hazardous mixture of gases using inappropriate equipment. The information in the fire department report indicates that the explosion was foreseeable and preventable. Is it therefore appropriate to call the explosion an accident? Does anyone know of a lab incident that could truly be called accidental in that that chemicals involved behaved contrary to their known...

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Report on U Hawaii explosion delayed until the end of June
May24

Report on U Hawaii explosion delayed until the end of June

From the University of Hawaii, the latest on one of the investigations into the March explosion that caused a postdoctoral researcher to lose one of her arms: The independent investigation into the March 16, 2016 explosion in a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa laboratory is now expected to be complete by end of June 2016. The University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, retained by UH to conduct the investigation, has arranged to test certain materials. The final completion of the investigation report is dependent on the testing and the test results. The investigation was originally to be completed by the end of April, then the University of Hawaii said late...

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Georgia student burned in “rainbow demo” alcohol fire to receive $1.5 million
May11

Georgia student burned in “rainbow demo” alcohol fire to receive $1.5 million

A woman who was burned in a 2013 fire started when a high school teacher added methanol to an already-burning rainbow flame test demonstration will receive $1.5 million as part of a legal settlement, says the Daily Report, a news organization that covers Georgia courts and law. From the story: According to the plaintiff’s lawyers and the complaint in the case, Chapel Hill [High School] was hosting an Advanced Placement open house on the evening of Oct. 3, 2013. As part of the event, [student Olivia Johnson] and an instructor, Ashley Mathieson, were conducting a chemistry experiment in the school hallway that involved identifying various chemicals by the color of the flame they emit when burned. As part of the experiment, substances were placed in a crucible or petri dish and Mathieson poured liquid methanol over them from a 4-liter jug, which Johnson would then light. The complaint said Johnson was holding a lighter to the dish when Mathieson became engaged in an “animated conversation” with another student and her mother, turning her back to Johnson, the complaint said. Mathieson abruptly turned and poured more methanol on the open flame, causing a “flash fire that engulfed [Johnson] in a ball of flames.” … A series of “after” [photos of Johnson] shows widespread scarring on her hands, arms, chest, back and neck. … [Attorney Joseph Neal Jr. said that] school systems are protected from suit by sovereign immunity, while school employees enjoy the protection of official immunity. Only if such an employee can be shown to have negligently performed or failed to perform a ministerial duty—one which is mandated by rule or law—is there exposure to liability. That threshold, said Neal, makes it virtually impossible to sue a teacher or principal. But he said a conversation with a laboratory safety expert who specializes in school fires alerted him to the National Fire Protection Association safety standards—standards that had been incorporated into Georgia’s fire safety code and adopted by Douglas County ordinance. “That means they’re law; they’re mandatory,” Neal said. In September, the lawyers, along with ChancoSchiffer partner Douglas Chanco, filed a suit in Douglas County Superior Court on Johnson’s behalf, naming Mathieson and Chapel Hill Principal Sean Kelly as defendants. The suit said the defendants had violated several “ministerial, mandatory, and non-discretionary Douglas County and state of Georgia fire codes, laws and regulations” by conducting the rainbow experiment in a school hallway not separated from the building by a fire barrier, improperly storing and handling the methanol, failing to safeguard against the exposure of hazardous materials and fumes to flame and ignoring a red-lettered sign on the chemical cabinet where...

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