Friday, July 8, 2016

UCCLS: Static electricity, not a spark from a pressure gauge, triggered the UHawaii explosion

Last week, the University of Hawaii - Manoa released the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety's report on the explosion of a hydrogen/oxygen mixture. The link goes to the short news conference and the reports from UCCLS.) Jyllian Kemsley has written a blog post about it, as well as a short C&EN article that I quote from here (update: emphasis mine): 
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). 
UH 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...
I have much more to say on this, but I wanted to note that the report has been released, and that the cause of the explosion was not the digital pressure gauge, as originally suspected by the Honolulu Fire Department.

UPDATE: Changed headline, adding bolding. 


  1. I don't understand the focus on static electricity in this accident - IMO it shouldn't be in the headline. Just a cursory glance at the reports shows, thankfully, that while it is acknowledged that static electricity contributed in this case there were many other and more important contributors to what happened. The primary cause of this accident was the preparation of an explosive mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. That should never have been done. If the researchers had taken the necessary (and published - read the reports) precautions for dealing with these gasses then an explosion would not have occurred even in the presence of a spark.

  2. I hope they're still investigating the PI's potential responsibility. IIRC, there was a smaller incident earlier in the lab, and the PI told the postdoc to do the experiment anyway.

    1. "Our goal now is to become a national leader in laboratory safety.” said Bruno. “It’s about enhancing our safety culture and standard operating procedures where risks are constantly being identified and minimized. Everybody has a role to play.”

      Firing the PI who told her to run the experiment despite the first incident would be a significant step toward this goal.

  3. "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."