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  • OSHA May Lower UR Lab Fines
Mar 2009
ROCHESTER, N.Y., March 9, 2009 -- A tentative agreement between the University of Rochester and OSHA would lower fines imposed over safety violations at the university’s laser lab that left a worker paralyzed, according to media reports.

The Democrat and Chronicle newspaper reports on its Web site that the deal between the university and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) would drop the fines from $57,000 to $25,000 and dismiss two of the nine violations announced in January. (See: OSHA Cites, Fines Laser Lab.) 

The Aug. 6 accident happened at the UR Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) and involved a device associated with the 60-beam Omega laser, one of the world’s most powerful fusion lasers. Employee Sam Roberts was servicing a pressurized diagnostic device for the Omega known as the light pipe when it exploded (See: Engineer Hurt in Laser Lab and Serious Injury Closes Lab).

Roberts, an employee of the lab for almost 10 years, was struck on the head by a bracket that reportedly weighed more than 100 lb. He was paralyzed and lost an eye, and he has had multiple surgeries to reconstruct his face and fuse his spine.

The lab closed for three weeks after the accident to conduct what the university said was a “rigorous” safety review of the most serious injury to an employee in the 38-year history of the laboratory. The lab’s 300 employees spent more than 35,000 staff hours inspecting equipment and reviewing safety procedures.

OSHA’s subsequent inspection found deficiencies with the design, installation and operator training for the light pipe and the compressed gas system, of which it was a part. It cited the lab for failing to safeguard employees against recognized explosion hazards associated with assembly, disassembly, pressurizing, evacuating and monitoring activities for the light pipe. The lab received nine serious citations.

“This is the first serious accident in 38 years of operations, and safety is the laboratory’s most important priority. We have been working closely with federal and university officials these past months to learn everything possible about why this accident occurred. And we have enhanced our policies and procedures to minimize the risk of a similar accident occurring again,” lab director Robert McCrory said in response to OSHA’s inspection report.

The university and OSHA met Jan. 30 to discuss the factors each believed contributed to the accident and whether the proposed citations were warranted. The result of that meeting was the proposed fine reduction and dismissal of two of the charges.

The remaining violations allege that the light pipe was not “designed by a competent person,” that gas leaks were not sufficiently prevented and that “unqualified persons” worked on the compressed gas system, the newspaper said.

“They have a lot of really smart people over there and are competent in a lot of things, but perhaps not in this one very specific operation,” OSHA assistant regional director Mike Scime told the newspaper. “We’re not saying any one of these in and of themselves led to this accident, but perhaps a combination of a little shortcoming here and there ... a perfect storm with a catastrophic result.”

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