Texas Tech Laboratory Explosion

Chemical Safety Board Case Study - October 2011


On January 7, 2010, a graduate student within the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Texas Tech University (Texas Tech) lost three fingers, his hands and face were burned, and one of his eyes was injured after the chemical he was working with detonated. The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigated and found systemic deficiencies within Texas Tech that contributed to the incident: the physical hazard risks inherent in the research were not effectively assessed, planned for, or mitigated; the university lacked safety management accountability and oversight; and previous incidents with preventative lessons were not documented, tracked, and formally communicated. The lessons learned from the incident provide all academic institutions with an important opportunity to compare their own policies and practices to that which existed at Texas Tech leading up to the incident.
 
Looking beyond Texas Tech, the CSB identified a lack of good practice guidance recognized by the academic community; limitations in using the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories Standard (29 CFR 1910.1450) as guidance for mitigating physical hazards in the laboratory; and a missed opportunity for a granting agency to influence safety practices. While a vast number of references, standards and guidelines have been developed to describe and promote different types of hazard evaluation methodologies in an industrial setting, similar resources that address the unique cultural and dynamic nature of an academic laboratory setting have not been generated. Good-practice guidelines would provide universities a metric to evaluate their current hazard evaluation procedures against, or for schools with none in place, would enable a more rapid process for their development. If universities choose to use OSHA’s Laboratory Standard as guidance for developing a plan to mitigate chemical hazards, they need to understand that the standard was not created to address physical hazards of chemicals, but rather health hazards as a result of chemical exposures. Physical hazards though, as evidenced in the Texas Tech incident and the 2008 laboratory fire that resulted in the death of a staff research associate at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), are deserving of similar attention to that given to health hazards. Finally, the granting agency, which provides funding for the research and thus maintains a level of control and authority over the researchers, did not prescribe any safety provisions specific to the research work being conducted at Texas Tech until after the incident occurred.
 
The full report addresses key leanings, effects of the incident, a description, causation, and corrective actions to prevent reoccurrence.
 
Additionally readers are encouraged to view the CSB video, "Experimenting with Danger" also accessible via the CSB website.