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Researcher Who Lost Arm in Blast Sues University of Hawaii

HONOLULU — A postdoctoral fellow who lost her right arm in a University of Hawaii laboratory explosion has sued the school and the researchers she worked for.

Thea Ekins-Coward and her wife, who are both from the United Kingdom, filed the lawsuit in state court in Honolulu this month. The complaint alleges the university and researchers Jian Yu and Richard Rocheleau failed to provide her with adequate safety training and adhere to safety codes.

The explosion occurred last March in a Hawaii Natural Energy Institute lab on the university’s flagship Manoa campus. The lab focuses on renewable energy and degradable bioplastics. Ekins-Coward was working on research to produce liquid fuel from synthetic gases such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, the complaint said.

The lawsuit alleged the university and Yu told Ekins-Coward to use dangerous tanks unsuitable for use. The tanks weren’t designed for flammable gases and weren’t grounded to prevent static electrical discharge, it said.

Ekins-Coward asked for safety training on October 7, 2015 but Yu refused, the complaint said. Later thaT month Ekins-Coward asked Yu, who was her principal investigator and mentor, whether she should be concerned about specific hazards but Yu failed to provide her with training on the method for mixing gases using pressurized reactors.

University spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the school hasn’t been served with the lawsuit. He had no further comment as the litigation was pending. Yu declined comment. Rocheleau referred questions to the university spokesman.

The university hired the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety to investigate the cause of the blast. The investigation found static electricity released into a tank most likely caused the explosion.

Investigators said a digital pressure gauge was the origin of the electrical current that caused the detonation.

Ekins-Coward lost her right arm above her elbow. She suffered facial burns, abrasions to her cornea and nerve damage to her ears that led to high frequency hearing loss.

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