The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recently granted Texas Tech with an “Open-Acceptable Response” regarding the investigation into a 2010 incident at the Chemistry building, which seriously injured a graduate student.

The favorable report, received by letter on June 25, is due to Tech’s efforts to implement the CSB’s safety recommendations.

“We are taking compliance around these recommendations and are becoming an exemplary institution,” said Taylor Eighmy, senior vice president for research. “This was one of our highest orders of business here at the university.”

Alice Young, associate vice president for research, said that in January 2010, a graduate student in the department of chemistry and biochemistry had an accident while conducting work on an energetics project, which is a project to research materials that could become energetic and explode in certain ways.

In the course of the experiment, the student made much more of the material than was called for in the laboratory protocol. When he attempted to break the large quantity of material into smaller pieces, the pressure of the grinding caused the material to explode.

“It blew off part of his hand and the material injured one of his eyes,” Young said.

As a result of that explosion, she said, the CSB came to Tech to investigate.

The CSB is charged with investigating chemical workplaces and other places that use large amounts of chemicals.

Young said Tech was the first university campus the CSB ever has investigated.

“We were the first, and so far we’re the only accident on a university campus that’s been investigated,” she said.

The two recommendations the CSB issued to the university are as follows: to “revise and expand the university chemical hygiene plan (CHP) to ensure that physical safety hazards are addresses and controlled, and develop a verification program that ensures that the safety provisions of the CHP are communicated, followed, and enforced at all levels within the university;” and “develop and implement an incident and near-miss reporting system that can be used as an educational resource for researchers, a basis for continuous safety system improvement, and a metric for the university to assess its safety progress. Ensure that the reporting system has a single point of authority with the responsibility of ensuring that remedial actions are implemented in a timely manner.”

Eighmy said Tech is close to meeting both of CSB’s recommendations, possibly by September or October.

“They asked us to revise our chemical hygiene plan, and its basically been revised according to what we needed it to be and what the Chemical Safety Board needed it to be,” he said. “We also brought in an outside consultant to advise us in laboratory safety. We got a lot of good advice in how to update our plan and its been updated, but we just need it to be ratified when the faculty is back on campus in the fall.”

Eighmy said they also launched a Lessons Learned web page so people can learn how to prevent accidents in the laboratory. The web page will be presented next week at a professional meeting.

“Sometimes you can learn the hard way by having accidents,” he said, “but it’s better to learn by realizing you almost had an accident and put that out there and letting people look at it and understand what they can do differently.”

In addition to these recommendations, President Guy Bailey created six self-imposed requirements, which include: adapt elements of physical risk into Tech’s chemical hygiene plan; require Tech to become an exemplary institution around the culture of safety; require the university to report annually to the CSB about progress made toward improving the culture of laboratory safety, the parameters needing definition; establish a TTU Faculty Chemical Safety Committee to help firmly establish the culture of laboratory safety; acquire an online chemical inventory system; and require the Provost and the Vice President for Research to make laboratory safety an element of annual evaluations. Other requirements are to be determined.

“We are still making progress on the six recommendations Dr. Bailey’s provided us with,” Eighmy said, “and we’ll be accounting our status of those to the Chemical Safety Board.”

Eighmy said the university world is watching how Tech responds to the CSB investigation.

“A number of prominent universities have had very serious safety issues with loss of lives,” he said. “The professional staff inside universities and administrative leadership is watching what is happening here at Tech, so we elected to put all of our processes and procedures about how we’re changing our culture and meeting these obligations up on our website. It gets visited a lot by professional community out in higher ed.”  

Eighmy said Tech will continue to evolve and change as a university around the idea that laboratory safety is a form of excellence and scholarship.

“We want the whole world to watch as we grow and change,” he said. “We’re going to keep that pressure on ourselves.”

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