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University of Hawaii fined for safety violations in lab explosion

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In response to the University of Hawaii (UH), Manoa, lab explosion in March, which severely injured postdoc Thea Ekins-Coward, last month the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health division (HIOSH) issued a citation for 15 serious violations and imposed fines totaling $115,500. This month, after the university immediately took advantage of the opportunity provided by the law to confer informally with HIOSH to seek abatement, HIOSH announced a settlement agreement that combined some violations, reducing the number to nine and the fines to $69,300. 

“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 states. Such a settlement is a “very normal process … when the employer shows a good faith effort” to improve its safety performance, says James Kaufman, president of the nonprofitLaboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Massachusetts.

The cited violations essentially mirror the shortcomings identified in the July investigative report from the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety. They include technical issues, such as failure to ground the tank of flammable gases or to wear gloves to prevent discharge of static electricity from the researcher to the tank, and organizational flaws, such as failure to “ensure that [the university’s] safety practices were followed by employees and underscored through training, positive reinforcement and a clearly defined and communicated disciplinary system,” and the failure of “supervisors [to] understand their responsibilities under the safety and health program.” Lack of appropriate risk assessment and abatement and a chemical hygiene plan covering the process of mixing hydrogen, an “extremely hazardous” gas, were also cited.

“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,” university spokesman Dan Meisenzahl told Science Careers by email. For example, UH has established a Chemical and Physical Hazards Committee, made up of representatives from across the university, “to promote a greater awareness and commitment to health and safety in research and teaching laboratories,” Meisenzahl writes. The committee “is working with other safety-related committees already in existence”—including the UH Environmental Health and Safety Office and various independent groups—“to identify and implement protocols and processes to strengthen the safety program.” It is too early, however, to assess the effectiveness of this committee or the university’s efforts at improvement.

The settlement illustrates the advantage to employers of working collaboratively with occupational safety authorities to improve safety, Kaufman says. For example, he continues, employers should take advantage of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s free on-site consultation service “before something goes wrong. … They find stuff; you fix it”—potentially preventing a future disaster.

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