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Lab explosion maims University of Hawaii postdoc

A postdoc at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, lost an arm and suffered other injuries in a lab explosion on the campus on 16 March. Thea Ekins-Coward, 29, was working alone with a mixture of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and oxygen gases at the time of the blast. A graduate student who was in a nearby room and two university public safety officers assisted in transferring her to a hospital, said the university’s chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman, at a 17 March news conference.

A postdoctoral fellow at the university’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), Ekins-Coward had been working on “an experiment … to grow cells by feeding them a mixture of low-pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen,” explained Brian Taylor, dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, at the news conference. “Gases were being bled off [from tanks] to form a mixture at a lower pressure which was a combination of CO2 plus hydrogen plus oxygen. … There was an explosion, so there had to be an ignition event. We don't know what that was at this time.” He emphasized, however, that Ekins-Coward was working on a project that has been running since 2008, and since it began, “the process [she had undertaken] has been used almost daily and without incident. Clearly something unexplained happened.” This incident is “way out of the ordinary for us,” added Roy Takekawa, the university’s environmental health and safety director.

The lab Ekins-Coward was working in had passed an annual safety inspection in January, Takekawa said. Ekins-Coward, who arrived about 6 months ago, according to Taylor, had taken a general university course in lab safety and also received specific training in the procedure from the lab’s principal investigator, Takekawa said. Working alone is “routine” for this procedure, Taylor added. “Not long before [the explosion], the professor in charge of the lab had been with her,” and other lab members were also in nearby rooms, he said.

The university is investigating the incident, and “we intend to engage national safety experts in the post-incident follow-up,” Taylor said. In addition, “a comprehensive safety review of all [HNEI] laboratory operations” is also underway. A structural engineer determined that the building was safe, and it was reopened on 18 March. “Our primary concern [in reopening the building] is safety,” Bley-Vroman said.

At present, far too little is known about this incident to draw any conclusions about what went so catastrophically wrong. It bears a certain resemblance to previous, grave incidents at universities, such as those involving the deaths of lab technician Sheri Sangji at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Yale undergraduate student Michele Dufault and the maiming of graduate student Preston Brown of Texas Tech University, especially in having a victim who was working alone and had learned the procedure in question on the job in the lab. On the other hand, the lab recently passed an inspection on “all the requirements” in Takekawa’s words, which may indicate a group that takes safety seriously but suffered an unforeseeable misfortune. 

Until the details of this incident are known, we cannot know whether inadequate safety standards were to blame. Regardless, it serves as another reminder that safety standards on many campuses are so lax that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in a groundbreaking 2011 report declared itself “greatly concerned about the frequency of academic laboratory incidents in the United States.”