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
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
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
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...

Read More
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...

Read More