Quick thinking, teamwork highlight accident response

A quick-thinking PhD student, working in conjunction with Western’s Health and Safety infrastructure, offered a textbook example of how to handle a laboratory emergency on campus this week.

On Monday, Patrick Hill, a PhD student in Geology and Planetary Sciences, was working in a Western Science Centre ground floor laboratory when the accident took place.

In his studies, Hill conducts oxygen isotope analysis of lunar material to discover the origins of Earth’s Moon. That research requires extremely small amounts of the lunar material to be turned into a gas in a process that involves the use of bromine-pentafluoride, a powerful oxidizing and fluorinating agent.

At the time of the accident, Hill was conducting a similar procedure with non-extraterrestrial material, quartz, when a rogue grain shot up, compromised its container and released a small amount of bromine-pentafluoride. Efforts to neutralize the agent, through the use of nitrogen, were unsuccessful.

That’s when Hill made the call.

“I felt we didn’t have complete control of the situation,” he said. “I talked to a lab technician about the leak. It’s a very pungent gas, and so, by the time we got back to the situation, I smelled it. At that point, we felt we didn’t have complete control of the situation. For the safety of the building, and everyone else in it, we called campus police.”

Around 4 p.m., Campus Community Police Service responded to the call concerning a vapour release in the Science Centre laboratory. Western’s Hazmat team responded along with the London Fire Department and Hazmat. The university’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) and Emergency Operations Control Group (EOCG) were altered through the iWesternE app.

Given the lab’s proximity to a 200-student classroom, emergency personnel evacuated the building. No one was injured. Evening classes in the building were relocated.

“We evacuated because the potential for a bigger problem was there,” said Tony Hammoud, Western Biosafety Officer. “We would rather inconvenience ourselves in the short run and be safe rather than wish we did something different later on.”

Given Hill was the most familiar with the lab layout, the reagent and the location of all materials needed to contain it, Health and Safety opted to outfit Hill in full Hazmat gear and have him assist in the containment. Each step throughout the building, Hill was flanked by members of Hazmat and the Fire Department.

“Because he was the researcher, we needed his expertise inside,” Hammoud said. “Without him, this would have been far more difficult. They were by his side, every step, making sure everything was safe.”

The release was quickly neutralized, and the building was reopened by 6 p.m.

Hill credited his ability to navigate the entire incident to his extensive Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems (WHMIS) training, in association with laboratory and research-specific training through his faculty and department.

“That training really emphasizes the priority of the person,” Hill said. “At the time, because it was dangerous, something kicked in. There wasn’t any panic. There was, when the seven fire trucks showed up, a litter embarrassment I caused so many trucks to appear. But panic wasn’t there. It would have been much worse if it did.”

Hammoud applauded the coordinated effort between the university and the city.

“The response was harmonically perfect in many, many ways,” he said. “It was perfect cooperation between the members of all teams, inside and outside the university. These can be extremely challenging, but the exercises we have done in the past paid off big time. We spend so much money, so much time to understand the strategies behind these incidents; when it actually happens, however, it’s a test of the human element. That plays such a crucial element in making it a successful response or not. Everybody responded professionally.

“Nobody was disappointed.”