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Lab Safety

Explosion at the University of Hawaii seriously injures researcher

Thea Ekins-Coward lost an arm, local media report

by Jyllian Kemsley
March 21, 2016

UPDATE: A newer version of this story confirming the name of the researcher and her lab manager can be found here.
University of Hawaii, Mānoa, Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman, School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology Dean Brian Taylor and Environmental Health and Safety Office Director Roy Takekawa speak at a news conference on March 17.
Credit: University of Hawai’i

A 29-year-old researcher was seriously injured in a lab explosion at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, on March 16.

The researcher is Thea Ekins-Coward, and she lost an arm and suffered other injuries, according to local media reports. When C&EN inquired about her condition on March 20, Queen’s Medical Center, the facility where she is hospitalized, declined to release any information.

Ekins-Coward is listed as a postdoctoral researcher in the alternative fuels group at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), which is a research unit within the university. The university has not confirmed that Ekins-Coward was the person injured.

The lab in which the explosion happened was operated by HNEI and focuses on renewable energy and degradable bioplastics, said Brian Taylor, dean of the School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology, during a March 17 news conference. At the time of the incident, the researcher who was injured was 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 cells. “Since 2008, when the project began, the process has been used almost daily and without incident,” Taylor said.

Credit: Allyson Blair/Hawaii News Now
The explosion that injured a 29-year-old researcher last week cracked the glass in the door of the lab where she was working.
Photo of lab door showing cracked glass.
Credit: Allyson Blair/Hawaii News Now
The explosion that injured a 29-year-old researcher last week cracked the glass in the door of the lab where she was working.

The injured researcher had received general and lab-specific safety training, Environmental Health & Safety Office director Roy Takekawa said at the news conference. The lab was last inspected in January and passed all requirements, Takekawa said.

Although the injured researcher was alone in the lab at the time of the incident, others were nearby. Two public safety officers and a graduate student evacuated her from the facility, chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman said at the news conference. “We are extremely grateful to those first three responders who acted so quickly to get the injured individual to the hospital,” Bley-Vroman said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the individual who was injured.”

News media photos taken outside the lab show cracked windows, walls, and ceiling tiles, and a bent door. A sign on the door lists the emergency contact as Jian Yu, an HNEI staff researcher who works on microbial bioprocessing, bioreactor engineering, biofuels, and biomaterials. The sign also says that the lab contains bacteria and requires biosafety level 2 practices, which apply to work involving agents that pose moderate hazards to personnel and the environment.

HNEI has initiated a comprehensive safety review of all its laboratory operations, Taylor said. The building was found to be structurally sound and reopened on March 18, although the damaged lab remains closed.

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