Preston, a fifth-year graduate student at Texas Tech University, gently broke up the clumps of nickel hydrazine perchlorate (NHP) using a mortar and pestle. He set the pestle down and removed his safety goggles as he walked away from the workbench. A short time later, Preston returned to the workbench to stir the NHP one more time. With his safety goggles still resting on the workbench, Preston picked up the pestle and began to stir the compound.
As the smoke cleared, laboratory staff found Preston severely injured. Preston lost three fingers; his hands and face were seriously burned, and one of his eyes was injured when the energy from the NHP compound was explosively released.
Serious laboratory accidents, such as the one described at Texas Tech University, provide safety and health professionals with an opportunity to learn about the system failures and deficiencies ultimately responsible for the accidents. By looking at the root causes of these accidents, fundamental changes can be made which will have a greater preventative impact.
The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) identified several factors that contributed to the Texas Tech University accident and identified a number of key lessons that could be learned from the accident.
- OSHA’s Laboratory Standard (29 CFR 1910.1450) focuses on chemical health hazards. Laboratory safety plans should ensure all safety hazards, including physical hazards of chemicals are considered.
- Laboratories should ensure practices and procedures are in place to verify hazards are evaluated and mitigated. When mitigating hazards, a hierarchy of controls should be applied to ensure the most effective controls are used. For example, substituting a non-explosive chemical in place of an explosive chemical is more effective at mitigating the hazard than simply using personal protective equipment.
- Laboratory management should provide clear oversight and guidance on managing chemical laboratory hazards. Comprehensive guidance in the areas of hazard evaluation, risk assessments, and hazard mitigation should be included.
- Clearly written protocols and training must be provided to all laboratory personnel.
- A laboratory’s organizational structure should ensure the safety inspector/auditor directly reports to an identified individual with organizational authority to implement safety improvements.
- Near-misses and previous incidents should be documented, tracked, and communicated to provide an opportunity for education and improvement.
By applying the “lessons learned” from this and other laboratory accidents, future injuries and deaths can be prevented in both academic and commercial laboratories.
Chemical Safety Board (CSB). (2011). Texas Tech University, Laboratory Explosion. Retrieved from http://www.csb.gov/assets/1/19/CSB_Study_TTU_.pdf