Chemical and Engineering News is reporting on the investigation into the March explosion that claimed the arm of a postdoc (said postdoc has not permitted the release of information on her current condition). Per the investigation report of the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD), sparks from a pressure gauge caused the explosion of gases being used to ‘feed’ bacteria in a bioreactor. For this the gases need to be transferred from a high pressure container to a lower pressure container, and the pressure gauge that sparked was not rated for use in a gaseous chamber. The HFD report also notes that there had been a prior explosion in this lab with a smaller tank and similar setup. Reading the report, one could infer that some lab safety practices were either not effectively implemented or not followed by lab personnel. There are at least two other investigations to come, as the University hired the Center for Laboratory Safety at the University of California to conduct an investigation, and the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division is also examining the accident. They may be more definitive concerning how lab practices may have contributed to the accident.
Beryl Benderly at Science wrote recently about two lab accidents at Texas Tech University. One, in 2010, seriously injured a graduate student, and prompted an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The resulting report criticized lab safety procedures nationwide and prompted the University to adjust its own procedures. Thankfully, an explosion in March at Texas Tech was limited to ‘superficial’ injuries. Benderly notes that the underlying missteps in each accident reflect better overall procedures. Arguably that could simply be because things at Texas Tech were pretty awful back in 2010, but relative improvement is still improvement.