Researcher Burned in Chemical Explosion Due to Improper Disposal of Chemicals

Key Instruction Points

  • Segregate and dispose of hazardous wastes properly through EHS

  • Use appropriate personal protective equipment

EHS was notified of a chemical spill in a laboratory at the X Building. At that time, EHS was also told that a Research Associate was sent to the Emergency Room because of skin, eye and respiratory irritation. EHS responded and found yellow liquid splattered on the walls, ceiling and floor. Many bottles of chemicals were placed in a red bag medical trash can, of which several were broken. In addition, there were many more bottles on the counter top and floor.  

EHS was told that two Research Associates were cleaning out old chemicals from their lab. They had put the bottles of chemicals into the red bag waste bin, when it appeared that one of the bottles containing ferric chloride broke. An acid mist was created, possibly by water or other broken bottles of chemicals being present in the waste bin. The Researcher stepped closer and peered into the waste bin when an explosion occurred. The yellow liquid splashed all over him. He immediately took off his lab coat and shirt and showered under the two emergency showers in the hallway and then went to the ER. He suffered corneal abrasions and first and second degree burns to his face.  

The resulting damage and the time required to clean up the spill cost in excess of $2,500. Investigation revealed that the lab had been inspected by EHS less than a year ago and was advised to dispose of any old or unwanted chemicals through EHS. At no point was EHS ever informed that the lab needed to dispose of their chemicals.

Over the summer, in a similar incident, EHS was anonymously alerted that another laboratory was performing a laboratory cleanout and was disposing of chemicals in their housekeeping trashcan. EHS conducted an investigation and located the dumpster where the trash was disposed. In it, we found, to name a few, benzene, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, mannite, pyroxilin and sodium hydrosulfite. All of the illegally disposed chemicals were taken out of the dumpster by EHS and stored in our hazardous waste storage room. Fortunately, there were no serious repercussions.

What Are the Lessons from these Two Incidents?

First, all employees must be trained to do their jobs. All lab personnel must be up- to- date in Lab Safety Training, which include Chemical Waste Handling. Next, all hazardous waste is disposed of by contacting EHS, not in the regulated medical waste container. As stated in the Chemical Hygiene Plan, laboratories wishing to dispose of chemicals should schedule a chemical pickup or drop through our office. We dispose of chemicals at no charge if the proper procedures are followed. Lab workers should wear personal protective equipment and should take care to ensure that incompatible wastes are not mixed. And finally, all laboratory guidelines described in the Chemical Hygiene Plan should be followed to protect the health and safety of the housekeeping staff and co-workers.