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State imposes penalties totaling $115,500 in UH lab blast

  • COURTESY HONOLULU FIRE DEPARTMENT

    The damaged University of Hawaii laboratory is seen following the March 16 explosion that severely injured a graduate student while mixing gases.

  • COURTESY HONOLULU FIRE DEPARTMENT

    The damaged University of Hawaii laboratory is seen following the March 16 explosion that severely injured a graduate student while mixing gases.

  • BRUCE ASATO / JULY 1

    The Pacific Ocean Sciences and Technology building at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

The Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division has cited the University of Hawaii School of Earth and Science Technology and Hawaii Natural Energy Institute Inc. for 15 serious violations relating to a March 16 laboratory explosion at the school.

The state imposed penalties totaling $115,500 against UH and the Energy Institute. The Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division enforced a penalty of $7,700 for each violation classsified as serious, the highest maximum penalty for a serious violation.

UH has 20 days to contest the penalties. An informal conference between UH and the safety and health division has been scheduled for Sept. 30.

According to the findings, “activities performed in the laboratory by researchers with the potential exposure to explosion and fire hazards were not assessed for appropriate personal protective equipment.”

Concerns about the chemical hygiene plan were also raised.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the university is in the process of reviewing the violations and will seek clarification at the upcoming meeting with the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division.

This is the third investigation into the blast, which seriously injured researcher Thea Ekins-Coward, who lost an arm and suffered other injuries.

The explosion occurred at a laboratory operated by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute that was located in the SOEST building. Postdoctoral fellow Ekins-Coward, 29, was working on a mixture of low-pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen when the portable metal cylinder the gases were contained in exploded.

About a month after the explosion, the Honolulu Fire Department said its investigation determinedthe blast was likely caused by a digital pressure gauge in the tank that produced an electrical spark and in turn detonated the flammable gas in the tank.

In July, an independent investigation from a University of California for Laboratory Safety team concluded the explosion was likely caused by static electricity. The report said the gauge was not inside the tank and detonation was caused by an electrostatic charge, accumulated by the gas storage tank or by Ekins-Coward herself, that was released when she touched a metal housing as she attempted to turn off the gauge.

Meisenzahl, who also spoke on behalf of the Energy Institute, reiterated the number of improvements done at the Manoa campus since the explosion that include risk assessment and proper training.

“Our priority is to strengthen the culture of safety on campus,” he said. “UH has really embraced this goal.”

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