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.
Postdoctoral researcher Thea Ekins-Coward, who worked on the university’s Manoa campus for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, lost one of her arms in the explosion. When the blast occurred, she was preparing a gas mixture of 55% hydrogen, 38% oxygen, and 7% carbon dioxide to feed to bacteria to produce biofuels and bioplastics. 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 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.
“The penalty reduction is in consideration of the employer’s prompt abatement of the cited hazards and efforts to prevent their recurrence,” the settlement agreement says.
“The university is working diligently to address the remaining violations, further strengthen the culture of safety, and foster an environment where hazard recognition and risk assessment are the standard of care for all activities,” the university says in a statement.
University of Hawaii workplace safety violations as listed in HIOSH settlement agreement
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 combined)
a. Two exit routes were not available in the laboratory to permit prompt evacuation of employees and building occupants.
b. The exit door did not swing out in the direction of exit travel.
6. (Two combined)
a. The employer’s emergency action plan(s) did not list the evacuation meeting point, nor a way to account for the evacuees.
b. The employer did not review the emergency action plan when employees were initially assigned.
7. A fire prevention plan did not include specific provisions to address potential ignition sources in the presence of hydrogen and other flammable gases.
8. (Two combined)
a. Activities performed in the laboratory by researchers with the potential exposure to explosion and fire hazards were not assessed for appropriate personal protective equipment.
b. 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.
9. (Four combined)
a. 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.
b. 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.
c. 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).
d. 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, and Settlement Agreement, signed Oct. 6, 2016.