Explosion injures student; same UF lab and chemical as Oct. blast


Published: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.

An explosion at the University of Florida that injured a graduate student and firefighter Wednesday involved the same laboratory and chemical as a similar incident in October.

The student, 27-year-old Khanh Ha, was working with sodium azide in a Sisler Hall lab when the explosion happened. He suffered serious injuries to his face, hand and body. He remained hospitalized in stable condition Thursday, according to UF.

A firefighter who responded to the scene, Andrew Marsh, received minor chemical burns to his face and eyes but was reported by Gainesville Fire Rescue to be in good condition.

Sisler Hall was closed Thursday as UF's Environmental Health and Safety department investigated the incident. The hall houses labs and offices, so no classes were affected.

William Properzio, UF environmental health and safety director, said there are not believed to be any threats to others in the hall but that it might remain closed for a couple of days to make sure.

"We don't want to risk it just on an assumption," he said. "This is not an insignificant kind of thing."

The explosion involved sodium azide, best known as the chemical found in automobile airbags. It is used as a chemical preservative in hospitals and laboratories, and accidents have occurred in those settings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical changes rapidly to a toxic gas when it comes into contact with metal.

District Fire Chief Jeff Lane said Ha suffered a gash to his upper body, injuries to his hand and burns to his face that were prevented from being worse by protective glasses. Marsh was wearing a face mask when he responded to the scene, and the chemicals might have run onto his face through his sweat, Lane said.

A faucet was left running after the explosion, he said, causing water damage and leakage that might have run into other chemicals on the floor below.

In October, an explosion happened at the same lab involving the same chemical. A student in that case, Mohamed Ibrahim, suffered injuries to his face from shattered glass when a flask exploded, according to a UF police report. Ibrahim was attempting to scrape residue from the flask and was not wearing protective gear, police reported.

Properzio said that incident led to additional training and unannounced inspections. The student Ha was working with the chemical in a contained area with shatterproof glass and was wearing protective gear, he said.

"It could have been worse," Properzio said. "Some of the things that we're preaching to them in terms of safety are being followed, it seems."

UF had another laboratory explosion in May 2011 that resulted in a student being injured. The student, Zhi Zhou, was mixing water, hydrochloric acid and titanium tetra-chloride in a jar that exploded, cutting his arm and splashing acid in his eyes, according to a police report. Zhou was "bleeding profusely from his right arm" when police arrived, the report said.

Three days after the incident, he told police that he was "not sure" if he was wearing safety glasses over his prescription glasses. He said at the time that he was recovering well.

The issue of safety at academic laboratories has received attention in recent years following incidents that have led to serious injuries and death. In 2008, a University of California at Los Angeles graduate student suffered burns in a chemical fire and later died. Last month, a professor was charged with willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.

A Texas Tech University graduate student lost three fingers and suffered burns and damaged an eye in a 2010 lab explosion. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigated the incident, recommending new hazard guidelines and calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a bulletin on controlling the hazards of chemicals in academic labs.

Neal Langerman, who runs the San Diego consulting company Advanced Chemical Safety, has spoken out about safety problems in academic labs. He said such incidents typically involve students or post-graduate researchers because they're the ones doing work in labs.

Principal investigators of research projects could deal with the issue simply by emphasizing safety in their regular meetings with those students and researchers, he said.

"At many universities, particularly leading research universities, there is a lack of safety awareness throughout the entire organizational structure," he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.

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