a sign marked flammable

Credit: S.Froebe/iStockphoto

A tale of two explosions

In January 2010, an explosion in a chemistry lab at Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock seriously injured a graduate student and touched off an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board that led to a groundbreaking report on laboratory safety. In response, TTU undertook a number of administrative and procedural changes to improve its safety performance and ability to learn from mistakes. Now, a 10 March 2016 TTU lab explosion—which fortunately produced only “superficial” injuries, according to a report issued by the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR)—highlights some of those changes in action.

The report on the 2010 explosion explained the factors that contributed to the catastrophe in illuminating detail. It described deficiencies, including lack of clear procedures for carrying out experiments and of hazard analysis before beginning work, and analyzed what had gone wrong at the lab bench and at many levels of the university as a whole, from inadequate oral communication between the grad student and the principal investigator to deficient training and administrative organization. The research group had experienced other dangerous incidents but had repeatedly failed to learn from them because it had not effectively communicated the lessons that emerged either within the lab or with the larger community. Beyond this, the grad student scaled up a reaction despite a lab policy—which he was not adequately aware of—to make only small quantities of the potentially explosive material he was working on, used improper technique to handle it, and failed to wear protective goggles.

The report on the recent incident, which an undergraduate student apparently brought on by skipping a step while carrying out a reaction and using a metal tool rather than a safer plastic one, illustrates notable improvement. “The student was, appropriately, not working alone and all personnel in the laboratory were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment including lab coats, safety goggles and gloves,” OVPR’s report states. Other good news is that, following a 2-week clean up and investigation, university Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) staffers developed recommendations for preventing similar events. They emphasize the importance of keeping the “regular hazard analyses [now routinely] conducted at the outset of experimental work” up to date, the report states. Next, “EH&S staff met with the Institutional Laboratory Safety Committee and the Principal Investigator involved to convey these recommendations and review updated procedures.” The lessons learned have also been disseminated to the university community and beyond.

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