The student was working on an experiment with sodium hydroxide — a solution that can melt a soda can in seconds and dissolve a chicken wing to the bone.
The chemical compound, known as lye, is perfect for research because it’s so corrosive. But that also makes it dangerous to handle. As the student carried a beaker across the lab at the University of Utah, some of it splashed and landed in his eye.
Covering his face with one hand, he ran around the room looking for an emergency eyewash. There wasn’t one. So he dodged down hallway after hallway in the science building. Thirty seconds later, he was able to flush his face with water. But his cornea had already been severely burned.
Two months before that July 2017 accident, the lab was inspected and found to have nine major deficiencies, including the missing eyewash, no chemical hygiene plan, no safety instructions, improper chemical labels and no spill kit. A year after, those issues were still not resolved.
In fact, they were not addressed until August 2018, after another student was burned on his legs and feet.
Those injuries — and a handful of others — are documented in a new state audit released Tuesday. The report condemns U. administrators and the school’s health and safety team for allowing a hazardous lab environment across all science departments.
Auditors said the U. has known about serious deficiencies for years. It hired a consultant in 2017 to review its research practices. But it never put into place the recommendations to reduce risks, such as requiring staff to wear protective lab coats and restricting the volume of caustic chemicals that students can use. Since then, similar accidents have repeated nearly every year.
And if the state’s flagship research institution continues to ignore the issues and delay fixes, the audit said, it’s at risk for much worse injuries, maybe deaths.
“Any given one of them could be very serious or unfortunate,” said Brian Dean, audit manager for the Office of the Utah Legislative Auditor General. “Ultimately, this system is broken. The department that is required to [oversee] this isn’t tracking the problems.”
The audit comes after a trio of high-profile tragedies at other research universities in the country; it was requested by state lawmakers who feared similar events could happen at the U. In 2008, a researcher at UCLA died after she spilled a chemical on her torso and the highly reactive liquid caught fire. In 2010, a graduate student at Texas Tech University lost three fingers from a chemical burn. In 2016, a lab assistant at the University of Hawaii had her arm amputated after an explosion.
In all three of those cases, like at the University of Utah, the schools knew about lab shortcomings beforehand and had failed to address them, the audit states.
Dean said the U. still has time to course-correct.
In a written response to the audit, U. President Ruth Watkins agreed with its findings. Ultimately, the report concludes that, as president since early 2018, she is responsible for ensuring the school’s labs are safe. She said the U. has started adding and replacing fume hoods and emergency washes in its labs.
“The findings of this audit are of such importance,” she noted, “that the university administration has already begun implementing changes to most effectively address the challenges and opportunities that were identified.”
Watkins also said administrators will work to communicate better with the U.’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety, which reviews the labs on campus each year. The audit dinged both for not coordinating. Staff members at Health and Safety weren’t reporting the deficiencies to top leaders at the school and the school’s leaders weren’t asking for more information in annual presentations. Because of that breakdown, no necessary changes were being addressed.
As part of the fixes, the computer system for tracking research deficiencies will be updated so that it’s easier to see which labs have issues and which ones aren’t improving. Right now, there is no central platform for that data.
The school will report back to the Legislature in October. It currently points to its new Meldrum Innovation Lab in the College of Engineering as a model for safety. Students must complete a safety course to work in there.
The audit looked specifically at lab inspections between 2016 and 2018. When Health and Safety identified a problem one year, it persisted the next year in the same lab 49 percent of the time, auditors found. Half of all labs had one major deficiency. And the safety reviewers rarely stressed any urgency to fix them and never followed up.
Andrew Weyrich, the recently named vice president for research at the U., spoke to members of the legislative audit subcommittee Tuesday about how the school is restructuring the chain of command so those gaps won’t happen.
“The university in the past has looked and cataloged some of the deficiencies,” he acknowledged. “But we do need to change the culture. We have a lot of labs that are great, but we have work to do.”
The biggest problems highlighted in the audit were researchers not completing annual safety training and not updating their chemical spill protocols. Other issues included those working with blood-borne pathogens not having the hepatitis B vaccine and those working with animals not filling out health questionnaires.
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said those issues greatly concern her because the safety of students and staff are on the line. “There need to be policies in place that everyone follows,” she noted.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, looked at the U.’s staff sitting in front of the audit subcommittee and added: “You better get this fixed.”
In a 2016 survey by the school, several researchers wrote about the dangerous environment in the science departments. One said there was a “laissez faire” attitude toward safety. Another noted that “there appears to be no verification and no repercussions here.”
A third wrote: “With the open environment of many labs on campus, I am concerned that just a few that do not follow safety procedures can expose many people to infectious material.”
Many people working in the labs don’t wear protective equipment.
In 2017, just 12 percent reported wearing lab coats and 16 percent said they put on goggles. Those are both dips from the previous year. The audit calls that “clearly unacceptable.”
In February 2018, a U. researcher was showing students an experiment at the front of a lab. The chemical she was using was highly reactive with air and caught on fire after she accidentally spilled it. She was wearing a lab coat — which protected her torso — but didn’t have on the proper gloves and her hands were covered with burns and blisters.
She was using the same chemical that killed the UCLA researcher in 2008.
“That coat protected the researcher’s body,” said Tim Bereece, the audit’s supervisor. “It could have been so much worse. … Coats are required when you’re working in the labs. Their use at the U. is very low.”
The auditors implored the school to take precautions now before a more serious incident or a lawsuit. Students and staff working in labs often use chemicals that are hazardous, cancer-causing, flammable and corrosive.
Bereece added: “They know about this. But action hasn’t been taken.”