A postdoctoral student sustained minor lacerations to the fingers and neck after an explosion and a small fire in the University of Wisconsin Chemistry Building Monday morning.
The student, who is also a chemistry department employee, was working on a distillation when an air-sensitive compound ignited. The ignition caused glass to break and started a small fire, Robert McClain, chair of the chemistry department’s Safety Committee, said.
Department officials said they were unsure what the student’s experiment involved, but the research is conducted under a vacuum to prevent explosions and fires.
UW Police Department Sgt. Aaron Chapin said the student is in stable condition and being treated for non-life threatening injuries. They should be released in the near future and make a full recovery, Chapin said.
“At this point, the incident is under investigation to determine what exactly happened and where we go from here,” Chapin said.
Other students in the lab at the time of the accident helped treat the injured individual as well as extinguish the fire and alert authorities. McClain said the students acted 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.
However, Matt Sanders, assistant academic program director, said none of the other students were aware of what the injured student’s research involved or what he was working on at the time, besides the specific chemical compound.
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 noted 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 case 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 occurred, 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.”