Engineering | Safe Engineering

Chemistry Building at UW-Madison.

A University of Wisconsin postdoctoral student sustained minor lacerations to the fingers and neck as the result of an explosion in the Chemistry Building.

The chemistry department employee, as well as student, was completing a distillation when an air-sensitive compound ignited. This ignition caused the glass to break and a small fire started, said Robert McClain, the chair of the chemistry department’s Safety Committee.

UWPD Sgt. Aaron Chapin said the student is in stable condition and was treated for non-life threatening injuries. He is expected to be released in the near future.
“At this point, the incident is under investigation to determine what exactly happened and where we go from here,” Chapin said.

McClain said the students acted in accordance with standard safety procedure.

At the time of the accident other students were working in the laboratory that helped treat the injured individual as well as extinguish the fire and alert authorities, in accordance with standard safety procedure.

The students also effectively extinguished the small fire in the laboratory before the Madison Fire Department arrived. While MFD ensured the fire was put out, police assisted with medical treatment and blocked off the area.

The assistant academic program director, Matt Sanders, said that  none of the other students were aware of the injured student’s research or the methods involved.
It is also normal for many of the students in the lab to not be informed of these specifics, Sanders said.

McClain said these details will be included in the investigation from UWPD, MFD and the chemistry department, which will provide recommendations for preventing accidents in the future.

“We like to think that our postdoctoral students are like professors and they should be able to work independently in the laboratory,” McClain said. “The question is how special of a procedure was he working on.”

He also stated two main possible problems at the incident. Campus police, for example, quickly entered the lab without adequate protection; McClain said they should have worn safety glasses in case another explosion occurred.

The Chemical Safety Department, which is also notified in the event of an accident, potentially could have arrived on the scene earlier, McClain added.

The Chemistry Building, with the exception of the laboratory in which the incident took place, remains open and poses no dangers to the community, Chapin said. Sanders added the chemistry fume hoods contained all chemicals from the explosion.

Graduate students and teaching assistants are trained on standard safety procedures before they begin working in the laboratory, including chemical safety, electrical hazards and laser standards, Sanders said.

“The chemistry department is not the same as an English department,”
Sanders said. “So we have to take extra precautions to make sure students know what to do in situations they may be exposed to.”

If there are any concerns or questions regarding health and safety within a laboratory, please contact John Crozier at 480-925-8498.