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University of Hawaii fined $115,500 for lab explosion

State occupational safety and health agency found 15 workplace safety violations associated with blast that severely injured a researcher

by Jyllian Kemsley
September 23, 2016

Laboratory at the University of Hawaii after an explosion of gases occurred.
Credit: Honolulu Fire Department
The explosion shattered fume hood sash windows and knocked over equipment.

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.

Ekins-Coward was preparing a gas mixture of 55% hydrogen, 38% oxygen, and 7% carbon dioxide when an electrostatic discharge likely ignited the mixture, according to an investigation report issued in July by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety. The gas mixture was to be used to feed bacteria to produce biofuels and bioplastics. The gases were combined in a 49-L steel tank designed for compressed air and not electrically grounded.

The safety violations cited by the Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division (HIOSH) include failing to do the following: reduce employee exposure to potential explosion and fire hazards, ensure safety practices were followed, perform periodic inspections to identify hazards, ensure employees wore appropriate personal protective equipment, make use of standard operating procedures, and require suitable exits from the laboratory.

HIOSH labeled all 15 violations as “serious” and assessed the maximum state penalty of $7,700 to each. The university must fix the violations by Oct. 21.

The university “will be requesting an informal conference with HIOSH to clarify the citations and discuss adjustments of the citations, as provided for in the HIOSH citations process,” according to a statement from the university. “Safety officers and leadership have been working diligently to further strengthen the culture of safety on the Manoa campus and foster an environment where hazard recognition and risk assessment are the standard of care for all activities,” the statement adds.

Both the Center for Laboratory Safety report and HIOSH findings show that the incident was avoidable, says Ekins-Coward’s attorney, Claire Y. Choo of the firm Danko Meredith. She and Ekins-Coward are evaluating whether to file a lawsuit against the university, Choo says.

University of Hawaii workplace safety violations identified by HIOSH

1. The employer failed to provide a safe workplace by reducing employee exposure to potential explosion and fire hazards.

2. The employer did not ensure that its safety practices were followed by employees and underscored through training, positive reinforcement, and a clearly defined and communicated disciplinary system.

3. The employer did not ensure periodic in-house inspections were being performed in Hawaii Natural Energy Institute laboratories to determine new or previously missed hazards.

4. Laboratory personnel working under the principal investigator did not use the required personal protective equipment at all times.

5. Two exit routes were not available in the laboratory to permit prompt evacuation of employees and building occupants.

6. The exit door did not swing out in the direction of exit travel.

7. The employer’s emergency action plan(s) did not list the evacuation meeting point nor a way to account for the evacuees.

8. The employer did not review the emergency action plan when employees were initially assigned.

9. A fire prevention plan did not include specific provisions to address potential ignition sources in the presence of hydrogen and other flammable gases.

10. Activities performed in the laboratory by researchers with the potential exposure to explosion and fire hazards were not assessed for appropriate personal protective equipment.

11. Activities performed in the laboratory by researchers with the potential exposure to explosion and fire hazards were not assessed for appropriate glove protection to guard against static discharge and flame-retardant laboratory coats to guard against fire.

12. Where hazardous chemicals were used in the workplace, the employer did not carry out the provisions of a written Chemical Hygiene Plan, which were capable of protecting employees from health hazards associated with hazardous chemicals in that laboratory.

13. The employer’s Chemical Hygiene Plan did not include the standard operating procedures relevant to safety and health considerations to be followed when laboratory work involved the use of hazardous chemicals.

14. The employer’s Chemical Hygiene Plan did not include criteria to determine and implement controls relevant to the gas mixing operation (engineering controls, personal protective equipment, administrative).

15. The employer failed to review and evaluate the effectiveness of the Chemical Hygiene Plan at least annually and update it as necessary.

Source: Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division Citation and Notification of Penalty to the University of Hawaii, issued Sept. 16, 2016.

UPDATE: The story was updated on Sept. 29, 2016, with a comment from Ekins-Coward’s attorney.



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