Experiment that evacuated MUN building sparks new safety measures in engineering labs

Memorial University is hiring two new safety supervisors and revamping laboratory procedures in the engineering faculty after an experiment went wrong last summer.

'Potential for this incident to create major negative consequences was high,' report concluded

RNC officers put yellow tape around the evacuated area at Memorial University's engineering building on July 27, 2017. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Memorial University is hiring two new safety supervisors and revamping laboratory procedures in the engineering faculty after an experiment went wrong last summer, forcing the evacuation of the engineering building.

A subsequent report by the university's chief risk officer determined that "the potential for this incident to create major negative consequences was high."

MUN's dean of engineering and applied science told CBC News that all preventive actions recommended in that report are being put in place.

"The situation was resolved without any injuries," Greg Naterer said.

"However, we do take this as an important learning experience and we really do take lab safety extremely seriously in engineering."

Pressurized hydrothermal reactor

The day it happened last July, the university attributed the evacuation to a "malfunctioning device."

Using access to information, CBC News obtained the subsequent incident report, which sheds more light on what happened.

During an experiment, a 15- to 20-centimetre hydrothermal reactor could not release pressure.

According to the report, "there was no firm conclusion as to whether or not the vessel was in any danger of exploding but the potential was believed to exist."

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary bomb squad was called in, and "determined that there was an explosive potential."

Greg Naterer is dean of the faculty of engineering and applied science and a professor of mechanical engineering at Memorial University of Newfoundland. (Memorial University)

They moved the device to a safe location and detonated it.

Naterer stressed that, in hindsight, there was no risk of explosion.

"That danger of overpressure or explosion really did not exist, in our opinion," Naterer said.

"The researchers are fine, there were no injuries and there was really no overpressure, but it was unknown at the time, because they couldn't open the vessel."

The procedure in question was a "routine experiment in environmental engineering" that had been done before.

In fact, that same day, two other reactors opened without incident.

Naterer said the experiment has now been eliminated, and won't be performed again.

Recommendations being implemented

In the subsequent incident report, the university's chief risk officer highlighted a number of issues. Those included:

  • Lack of knowledge of safe work practices;
  • Poor communication, with standard operating procedures for use of the reactor spoken and not written;
  • No documented training records for using the device; and
  • Lack of written emergency response procedures.

The report recommended changes to policies and procedures, which are now happening, according to Naterer.

He said this was an "isolated incident, of one specific experiment, in one defective vessel."

Naterer pointed to a recent accreditation report that concluded there were outstanding general laboratory safety practices in place.

"We're going to use this opportunity to learn from it and ensure that our safety standards in the labs and equipment are improved," he said.

About the Author

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.