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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A “Lesson Learned”–But This Time, Thankfully, Not the Hard Way

Failure to maintain equipment properly has apparently resulted in another academic lab safety incident, but one that, fortunately, caused no injuries, reports Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News. On 23 January, undergraduates in a physical chemistry class at the University of California, Davis, were working with a piece of equipment called a bomb calorimeter when it exploded. (Despite its name, that is not supposed to happen.) The lid of the metal instrument was “forcibly propelled upward” until it hit the ceiling and other metal fragments and pieces of a mercury thermometer were sprayed into the room, according to a report on the event by a university chemical hygiene officer.

Entitled “Lesson Learned, UC Davis Chemistry Event, Oxygen Bomb Calorimeter Failure,” the report attributes the explosion most probably to the failure of a valve seat within the calorimeter. The manufacturer, the report states, “recommends that all O-rings and valve seats be replaced annually or after 5000 firings….With proper maintenance, these particular calorimeters can operate safely and accurately for decades.” The machine’s serial number “indicates that it was manufactured in 1985,” but “there are no records of routine maintenance” of the device however.

A 1985 manufacture date does make the calorimeter 23 years younger than the lathe that killed undergraduate physics student Michele Dufault at Yale University in April 2011, which had also apparently gone decades without servicing. Of course it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the O-rings and valve seats may have been replaced at some point during the now-defunct calorimeter’s 27-year life. The lack of records, however, makes a proper maintenance schedule highly unlikely.

The “lesson” that those responsible for labs at UC Davis and many other universities need to learn from this incident–or re-learn after the unnecessary death of Dufault–is that servicing equipment in a timely manner is a potentially life-and-death responsibility. The fact that the academic science world doesn’t have once again to express shock and sorrow over yet another needless death or injury following this incident is pretty much a matter of luck rather than anything the university did to assure safety.