Electrical Mishap at High-Tech Stanford Lab Disfigures Worker, Launches Federal Probe
A high-tech physics lab at Stanford University has been partially closed since federal officials began probing an accident there in late December that left one worker disfigured and hospitalized.
The electrical explosion on December 27th happened at the SLAC National Accelerator Lab, which is run under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy but is managed and operated by Stanford University. The lab sits on hundreds of acres near campus and employs 1,600 workers specializing in sciences including chemistry, biology and astrophysics.
Other accidents and workplace-safety concerns preceded the lab-wide shut down, a review of internal memos and public records obtained by The Standard found. The December incident recalls another notorious electrical accident in 2004 that led to an electrician suffering serious burns and Department of Energy (DOE) investigators accusing SLAC of routinely overlooking safety violations to keep its particle accelerator operational so it could compete with other labs.
This winter’s accident happened as the lab was trying to meet a requirement from the DOE to upgrade an X-ray laser called the Linac Coherent Light Source. Stanford was awarded the $3 billion, five-year contract for operating the project, which is billed as a “world-class discovery machine,” in October.
The investigation into the incident is ongoing and DOE said its findings will be made public.
“After an initial, lab-wide pause, some electrical activities at SLAC remain on hold as the lab continues to gather facts about the incident, which DOE is investigating independent of the lab,” department spokesperson Chad Smith said.
The hospitalized electrician, who has not been identified, was struck by a high-voltage electric arc while working as part of a crew shutting down power to the lab, according to a report issued by the DOE’s Occurrence Reporting and Processing System.
Coworkers heard the electrical arc, rushed to the scene and called 911 and the lab’s emergency response team.
A DOE notice appears to place some of the blame for the accident on the electrician, saying they were working on the wrong part of the circuit. “In addition, the injured worker was not wearing the required shock hazard and arc flash hazard [personal protective equipment] at the time of the incident,” the department wrote in the notice.
The worker’s injury caused the lab to stop all high-voltage work and shut down power to seven buildings for the investigation to proceed, Lab Director Chi-Chang Kao told staff in a letter.
“News of this incident is unsettling and many of you may have questions, but I ask that we all please respect the injured employee’s privacy at this time,” Kao wrote. “Our thoughts are with the employee, their family and colleagues, with wishes for a fast and full recovery.”
But there had been several earlier incidents reported.
Two complaints were filed in April with Cal/OSHA, the state agency overseeing workplace health and safety and closed a month later.
The California Department of Industrial Relations, which enforces the state’s health and safety rules through Cal/OSHA, could not provide detailed information about the complaints because they are confidential.
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