Craig Merlic leads UCCLS safety investigation at University of Hawai’i (UH)

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Craig Merlic, head of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS), led the investigation of a lab explosion at the University of Hawai’i. 

The March 16, 2016 blast caused a postdoctoral researcher to lose an arm and about $800,000 in damage to the lab in the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) at UH Mānoa.

The UCCLS team, led by UCLA chemistry and biochemistry professor Craig Merlic, determined that the most likely cause of the explosion was an electrostatic charge that discharged through a digital pressure gauge into a gas storage tank filled with a pressurized mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gas. The investigation team commented in their report that “this accident at the UH laboratory showcases once again the challenges that academic research laboratories face in addressing physical hazards of experimental processes and recognizing potential hazardous consequences when experimental procedures are changed.”  The full investigative report can be found here.

At a press conference about the results of the investigation UH Mānoa Vice Chancellor for Research Michael Bruno said, “The team coming together decided that our best route forward was to hire an independent 3rd party to come in and do a thorough investigation. It then took a few days to look around, frankly, and see who was the best in the United States and our determination (was) the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety. We still believe that is the case, they were incredibly professional and responsive.” 

The first-of-its-kind laboratory safety center was established at UCLA in 2011. Lab safety training and inspection programs at UCLA changed in response to the tragic death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries she sustained in a 2008 chemistry lab accident at UCLA. 

According to an article in the UH news, the UCCLS was retained for the investigation “because it is a national leader in developing evidence-based best practices and facilitating implementation and optimization of laboratory safety practices.”

From Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) by Jyllian Kemsley:

University of Hawaii lab explosion likely originated in electrostatic discharge

The root cause was failure to recognize and control the hazards of explosive gas mixture, investigation report says

An electrostatic discharge between postdoctoral researcher Thea Ekins-Coward and a gas storage tank containing hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide likely caused an explosion at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, in which Ekins-Coward lost one of her arms, according to a report by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (UCCLS).

1467939190708UH hired UCCLS to conduct an independent investigation of the March 16 accident and released the report on July 1. Another investigation by the Honolulu Fire Department, released in April, concluded that the cause was a spark from the pressure gauge. UCCLS dug deeper than the fire department and contracted with an outside laboratory to recreate and test the experimental setup. Those tests ruled out all causes other than a static discharge. 

Photo right: The blast caused a postdoc to lose an arm and about $800,000 in lab damage. Credit: Honolulu Fire Department.

Going beyond the immediate cause of the explosion, however, “the overall underlying cause of the accident was failure to recognize and control the hazards of an explosive gas mixture of hydrogen and oxygen,” the UCCLS report says.

“The message to other researchers is that they need to do a better job of educating themselves about the hazards of the materials they’re working with” and what could go wrong, says Craig A. Merlic, UCCLS executive director and a chemistry professor at UCLA. And campus safety personnel “need to have conversations with researchers and guide them to the resources that are available” to help conduct experiments safely, he adds.

In the case of the UH explosion, for example, the lab passed a safety inspection in January in part by properly storing H2 and O2 cylinders 6 meters apart. But no one questioned storing a mixture of the gases in a 49-L steel tank designed for compressed air and not electrically grounded, the UCCLS report says. When the tank exploded, it contained 55% H2, 38% O2, and 7% CO2 at a pressure of 8 atm. UCCLS estimated the energy of the detonation to be equivalent to 70.5 g of TNT.

Ekins-Coward was working for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute under researcher Jian Yu. The gas mixture was used to feed bacteria to produce biofuels and bioplastics. Yu’s lab is still closed, and he and the institute have not yet determined how experiments will be set up going forward, says institute director Richard E. Rocheleau.

The explosion cost about $716,000 in infrastructure damage and $60,000 to $100,000 in equipment losses, and UCCLS was paid $88,000, says UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

UH placed no restrictions on the UCCLS team during its investigation, Merlic says. The Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division is also examining the incident.

Update: The investigation was featured in an article in Science Magazine on August 3, 2016.