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Hawaii explosion cost a researcher an arm

Electrostatic spark likely ignited tank containing mix of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide gases

by Jyllian Kemsley
December 14, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 49

Credit: Honolulu Fire Department
This steel tank ruptured during the explosion, which severed a researcher’s arm.
Photo of ruptured air tank.
Credit: Honolulu Fire Department
This steel tank ruptured during the explosion, which severed a researcher’s arm.

Calls for heightened attention to laboratory risks continued in 2016 after postdoctoral researcher Thea Ekins-Coward lost an arm and suffered other injuries in a lab explosion at the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa on March 16.

Ekins-Coward was working for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute under researcher Jian Yu. At the time of the explosion, she was preparing a gas mixture to be used to feed bacteria to produce biofuels and bioplastics.

The gas mixture of 55% hydrogen, 38% oxygen, and 7% carbon dioxide was contained in a 49-L steel tank designed for compressed air, not for hazardous gases, according to an investigation report issued by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS). The tank was not electrically grounded.

Tests commissioned by UCCLS ruled out all possible causes of the explosion other than a static discharge. Prior to the incident, Ekins-Coward had experienced static shocks when touching the tank, as well as a smaller explosion when using a 3.8-L tank.

“The overall underlying cause of the accident was failure to recognize and control the hazards of an explosive gas mixture of hydrogen and oxygen,” UCCLS reports.

“The message to other researchers is that they need to do a better job of educating themselves about the hazards of the materials they’re working with” and what can go wrong, says Craig A. Merlic, UCCLS executive director and a UCLA chemistry professor. Campus safety personnel “need to have conversations with researchers and guide them to the resources that are available” to help conduct experiments safely, he adds.

The explosion cost about $716,000 in infrastructure damage and $60,000 to $100,000 in equipment losses, and UCCLS was paid $88,000 to investigate the accident, says UH spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl.

The Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division initially cited UH for 15 workplace safety violations that carried a total fine of $115,500. The violations were later combined into nine and the fine was reduced to $69,300.


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