Rainbow in Flames

Article by Ramin Abhari

Process engineer Ramin Abhari's latest graphic novel aims to raise awareness about laboratory safety

IN March 2016, Thea Ekins-Coward lost her arm in a lab explosion. Thea was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hawaii where she was researching production of biofuels via microbial fermentation. The experiments her faculty Principal Investigator had set up involved working with a pressurised tank containing a blend of hydrogen and oxygen. The explosion was caused by a spark from a digital pressure gauge on the tank.

I’m sure my reaction after reading about this accident was similar to many others who have worked in industrial labs: Hydrogen and oxygen together in a pressurised tank equipped with a digital gauge? The gas mixture was well within its explosion limits and hydrogen has the lowest known ignition energy. What were they thinking?

Eight years earlier, on 29 Dec 2008, Sheri Sangji, a research assistant at UCLA died from burns suffered while she was transferring pyrophoric liquid tert-butyllithium (tBuLi) from one sealed flask to another. The plastic syringe she was using for this came apart, tBuLi spilled onto her skin and clothes and caught fire. Sheri was not wearing proper PPE.

Clearly there was a safety problem in academic laboratories.

While researching this topic, I came across the story of Calay Weber Biery on Reddit. Calay was just a highschool student when she was badly burned during an experiment her teacher was conducting. With her permission, I turned her words into a comic book short story titled Rainbow in Flames, which has been published in IChemE’s Loss Prevention Bulletin. The target audience is mainly chemistry teachers and students.

What makes school/college accidents so regretful is the fact that students have an instinctive trust in their teacher or faculty adviser. They trust that they are not going to be placed in an unsafe situation. This is fundamentally different from corporate/industrial labs, where safety is the stated responsibility of everyone. Please keep that in mind as you read this free download​.

Rainbow in Flames can be downloaded for free here.

Article by Ramin Abhari

Process Engineer, Renewable Energy Group

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