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State agrees to reduced violations, fines in UH lab explosion

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The state has reduced violations and fines for the University of Hawaii in connection with the March 16 explosion at a laboratory where a researcher lost an arm.

In response to prompt actions taken after the blast to prevent a recurrence, a settlement agreement was reached Thursday with the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Office reducing the number of violations cited from 15 to nine and lowering fines from $115,500 to $69,300.

“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,” said UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

Among the changes since the blast is the establishment of a chemical and physical hazards committee to promote greater awareness on health and safety at research laboratories.

The Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division issued UH a citation two weeks ago that listed 15 violations in its investigation of the explosion, and both parties subsequently met.

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

Ekins-Coward lost an arm and suffered other injures in the explosion.

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

An independent investigation conducted by a team from the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety concluded the explosion was likely caused by static electricity. The report said the gauge was not inside the tank, and that 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.