Campus Health and Safety
May 2012
Lessons Learned from Recent Serious Accidents in US Campuses

Accidents are always traumatic to those involved, and loss of human lives is even more painful. However, one positive outcome is for everyone to learn from these lessons, so that we can avoid recurrence.

There were more than 120 serious accident cases reported by US universities in the past decade. More noticeably, there were a number of notorious cases in the past few years. In December 2008, a research associate at UCLA suffered a serious burn resulted from spillage of a liquid pyrophoric (substance that burns spontaneously when exposed to air), she died 18 days later. In September 2009, a professor at University of Chicago died from an infection by a bacteria strain that he has been working with for years. In January 2010, an explosion occurred in a laboratory in Texas Tech University, causing a postgraduate student to lose three fingers and sustain cuts and injuries to his eyes. In April 2011, the hair of a postgraduate student was caught by a lathe (a piece of machinery that spins very quickly) in a workshop at Yale University, and the student was strangled to death.

There is serious legal consequence for the case at UCLA, where the school and the professor who supervised the victim were charged in December 2011 for criminal liabilities of the death of the research associate. Administrative fines of more than 30,000 USD were already imposed by the California State Government in 2009, but after almost 3 year's investigation, the Federal Government filed 3 counts of felony charges of wilful violations of the labor law against the defendants, including failure to correct unsafe conditions, failure to require appropriate work clothing, and failure to provide chemical safety training. The school faces fines of up to 4.5 million USD, and the professor faces a maximum of 4.5 years in jail.

The US Federal Government Chemical Safety Board reviewed these recent university laboratory accidents and suggested 6 specific recommendations:

  • Lab safety management plan must include physical and chemical exposure hazards
  • Institutions need to ensure research-specific hazards are evaluated and mitigated
  • Researchers need guidance document to help manage hazards unique to their research environments
  • Research-specific written protocols and training are necessary to manage laboratory research risk
  • Academic Institutions must ensure safety inspectors report directly to those with authority to implement improvements
  • Incidents, and near misses should be documented, tracked and communicated

Laboratory safety at HKUST was subsequently reviewed in accordance with these recommendations, and the findings are:

  • A comprehensive laboratory safety management program is in place
  • There are varying degrees of systematic risk management program in science and engineering departments
  • Guidance on management of research-specific hazards are readily available, both in the HKUST Safety and Environmental Protection Manual, and the HSEO website
  • The thoroughness of task-specific written protocol and training is dependent on individual faculty members
  • Departmental safety inspection reports prepared by Departmental Safety Officers typically go to unit heads, while HSEO inspection reports are sent to individual faculty members in charge of the inspected facilities
  • Accidents and incidents at HKUST are promptly reported and investigated, however near misses are seldom reported

In view of these lessons learned, it was decided in the recent Environmental Health and Safety Committee, chaired by VP-AB, that the following measures be implemented to refine our laboratory safety management:

  1. mandatory safety orientation to all new laboratory personnel, including faculty members, and
  2. compulsory risk assessment in development of experimental protocols.

Currently safety orientation to new laboratory personnel is conducted at the departmental level. It is proposed that a regular common safety orientation session will be organized by HSEO, so that general laboratory safety management responsibilities and university requirements can be directly communicated to all new laboratory personnel, including new faculty members, who hold a key role in implementing the laboratory safety program.

In terms of risk assessment of experimental protocols, all research proposals involving hazardous agents are already required to go through safety review under the Committee on Research Practices review process. Some departments have also established a safety review process for all postgraduate and undergraduate research work plans. EHS Committee Members agreed this is an important aspect to ensure laboratory safety at HKUST, a suggestion was even raised to consider making safety one of the Intended Learning Outcomes in relevant UG courses.

We look forward to working with concerned departments and faculty members in realizing these new measures, which will certainly further enhance our collective efforts in ensuring laboratory and research safety at HKUST.