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Wednesday, December 29, 2004
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Issue of Coal Research Center incident report supports ongoing policy and procedure review

ATHENS, Ohio (Dec. 29, 2004) -- The comprehensive and independent review of the events resulting in the Aug. 23 incident at the Ohio Coal Research Center (OCRC) has been distributed to tenants of the Spencer Building, 1005 E. State Street, and Ohio University continues to implement recommendations for the improvement of research policy and procedures.

University representatives have provided tenants of the building with the report and will address the questions associated with its results. Ongoing communication with those affected by the incident is being maintained to assist in issues relating to the reimbursement of medical expenses.

The report, authored by John Kominsky, a nationally recognized specialist in indoor environmental quality and occupational exposure assessment, traces the source of the building's heightened levels of carbon monoxide on Aug. 23 to a natural gas burner operated by the Ohio Coal Research Center. The burner, used to create a simulated flue gas stream as a part of fuel cell research, apparently failed to provide complete combustion of the natural gas allowing carbon monoxide to be released.

The Ohio Coal Research Center is affiliated with the university's Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Researchers, including faculty, staff and undergraduate and graduate students, explore new technologies to utilize coal in the powering of fuel cells. Operations at the center on E. State Street were immediately suspended following the incident.

The review further indicated that Ohio Coal Research Center researchers first experienced difficulties sustaining a stable burner flame in January and February 2004 and that the problem was apparently related to an insufficient supply of air to the gas burner. The university has no information suggesting previous significant exposures to carbon monoxide as a result of this malfunction.

The report recommended several measures be implemented to supplement the OCRC's safety plan and safeguard against future incidents. The recommendations include:

  • Update policies and procedures for material safety reviews. This includes the identification of hazardous characteristics of materials used or evolved during research projects and having researchers review the most recent versions of material safety data sheets and other technical hazard information.

  • Develop policies and procedures for safety reviews of engineering research projects involving chemical processes or systems. In particular, develop a process hazard analysis using the most applicable industry standards that identify engineering and administrative controls such as methods provide early warning of a release of a material and the consequences of a specific release. It should also evaluate possible safety hazards of a control failure on the building's occupants and building code compliance considerations.

  • Incorporate an evaluation of space considerations, such as use and occupancy classification and ensure the air-handling system is sufficient for the task.

  • Implement an improved preventive maintenance program that includes regular inspections to ensure equipment is in safe operating condition.

  • Incorporate a pre-startup safety review to ensure that equipment is constructed and installed in accordance with design, safety and operational standards and that those operating the equipment receive proper training.

The university has already begun implementing several related safety measures to ensure a greater degree of safety and accountability in all experimental operations. Many of the measures focus on revised policies and procedures, oversight of operations and preventive measures at the coal research center.

The measures, which were already in a preliminary stage of implementation prior to the August 2004 incident include the refinement of a safety plan in which systems are continually reviewed and a formal procedure is established for reporting incidents. Further measures include the creation of a procedure for evaluating the designs of experiments, including potential hazards, and creating standard operating procedures for operating experimental equipment.

To provide increased oversight, a Safety Review Board has been formed to review and address safety issues of proposed experiments. The board, composed of faculty, technicians and experimental specialists, can halt an experiment at any time for failure to maintain safe operations. Additionally, students are required to have supervising faculty sign their weekly laboratory notebooks, which detail experiment preparation, noteworthy occurrences and results of the experiment.

A preventive maintenance program is being refined to formalize procedures for the inspection, repair and calibration of equipment and to document maintenance. The level of training for students, faculty and staff is being increased, with mandatory Environmental Health and Safety training for all individuals associated with the OCRC. Also, additional gas alarms with greater capability will be installed.

Further, the chemical hygiene plans are being revised. The plans detail requirements for safe operation of laboratory equipment. All OCRC personnel are required to study the OCRC's material safety data sheets to understand potential hazards of chemicals and gases being used and must understand incident reporting procedures in case of an accident.

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Media Contact: Russ College of Engineering and Technology Dean Dennis Irwin, (740) 593-1479 - office - or (740) 590-2691 - cell; or Media Specialist Jack Jeffery, (740) 593-2200 - office - or (740) 290-4479 - pager

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