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After the disasters, UCLA and Hawaii each received citations and fines for serious (that is, potentially life-threatening) violations from state safety agencies that had also noted earlier, unresolved issues.But these citations raise another important and often overlooked point.
To be sure, industrial labs are not perfect and lax conditions are “not universal” on the nation’s campuses, but “university labs are not as safe as industrial labs,” says William Banholzer, who co-wrote a 2013 analysis in on the importance of teaching lab safety to students.
Banholzer, a former executive vice president and chief technology officer at Dow Chemical, is now a research professor of chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
’” Each injury or fatality studied so far adds up to this conclusion: It could have been prevented had anyone in power at the institution insisted on the kind of training, hazard analysis, risk mitigation, and adherence to accepted safety practices that are standard in the chemical industry — but so far not in academic science.
At Hawaii, the explosion resulted from a failure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation to ground the potentially explosive tank or even to require lab workers to wear gloves to prevent a static discharge, according to the investigations by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety (established after the catastrophic Sangji incident) and the Hawaii Occupational Safety Division. And in the 2009 case at UCLA, safety investigators found that the chemistry laboratory in question had not offered training in following manufacturer’s instructions for safely handling a highly flammable material.
It cited “preliminary information” on 120 incidents in the United States over the preceding decade suggesting that at least one significant incident occurs in a university laboratory every month.
Lab Safety Essay
CSB declared itself “greatly concerned about the frequency of academic laboratory incidents in the United States” and about “a number of” safety issues it has identified as “relevant to academia as a whole.” But no move toward more meticulous accounting resulted.
, Thea Ekins-Coward was working as usual in a laboratory at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute of the University of Hawaii, Manoa. “I heard an explosion and then, uh, and there’s a lot of debris and somebody’s really injured. It’s, uh, a pretty big emergency.” The caller was right on all counts.
A 29-year-old postdoctoral researcher, she’d been at the Honolulu lab for six quiet, uneventful months as part of a team seeking new ways to make fuels and plastics from biomass. The detonation, triggered by a transfer of static electricity to the ungrounded tank, had splintered furniture; spewed blood and skin across ceiling, floor, and lab benches; destroyed Ekins-Coward’s lower right arm; scorched her face; and left her, temporarily, profoundly deaf.
In fact, faculty members commonly view safety regulations as an “infringement on their academic freedom,” Elston noted. Research universities ostensibly hire faculty to teach, but professors earn tenure, promotion, and acclaim through research, by publishing journal articles that they finance with sometimes lucrative grants.
The grants are lucrative for universities too, which take 20 to 85 percent of the money as an “overhead” charge for basic institutional operating costs.