Science Careers Blog

January 16, 2012

A Pair of Explosions in the Same University of Florida Lab

What could possibly be good about not one but two explosions in 3 months, both with injuries,  in the same academic lab?  What could be good is the apparent progress the laboratory made between the two incidents.

In the more recent of two explosions in Alan Katritzky's lab in the chemistry department at the University of Florida (UF), on 12 January, "Preliminary investigation determined that appropriate safety procedures and protective equipment were in use, likely significantly mitigating the effects of the explosion," says UF chemistry department chair Daniel Talham, quoted by Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News.

Graduate student Khahn Ha, 27, who was working with sodium azide, sustained a "gash to his upper body, injuries to his hand and burns to his face" in the January explosion -- but avoided even worse harm because of his safety glasses, the Gainesville Sun reports. A firefighter wearing a face mask also received "minor chemical burns to his face and eyes" but is doing well, the Sun continues.

Three months earlier, an explosion in the same lab, involving the same chemical, injured student Mohamed Ibrahim, who was not wearing appropriate safety gear and suffered cuts to his face. Ha's mishap, troubling as it is, therefore seems to indicate that by the time the second explosion occurred safety was being taken more seriously in the Katritzky lab.

Just days before Ha's injuries, Kemsley had published on her C&EN blog a safety notice by Katritzky on the proper handling of the reaction involved in both the October and the January explosions -- a fact that, while ironic, also seems to indicate that Katritzky had become much more interested in laboratory safety (if perhaps not interested enough). After the second explosion, the university closed Katritzky's lab "indefinitely," pending a review of practices there, says a follow-up article in the Sun.  

These were not the only lab explosions at UF's chemistry department in the past year. Another occurred in May 2011, in a different UF lab. In that one, graduate student Zhi Zhou, who reportedly wasn't sure he had on safety glasses, suffered acid in his eye and a cut to his arm, the Sun reports.

The apparent progress is encouraging; still, a great deal needs to be learned about this disturbing and dangerous sequence of events. Much will depend on the quality of the investigation. Because the people suffering the main injuries were students, it's unlikely that a government occupational health and safety authority has primary jurisdiction.  It would be highly desirable, however, if such an agency undertook the task of finding out what is going on.

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