In the Nic of time

Published: Wednesday 25th February 2015

Safety audit averts chemical hazard 

The quick thinking and prudent actions of ACU Lab Technician Nicola Pradella and student volunteer Jacob Downs helped to avert a dangerous situation on the North Sydney campus last week.

Nic and Jacob were conducting a chemical audit in the Level 2 laboratory storeroom of the Carrol Building when they found a bottle of picric acid which appeared to have a faulty seal. The label jogged Nic's memory of media reports that picric acid had caused evacuations at UTS Sydney campus in 2013, due to risk of an explosion.

As a precaution, the pair immediately followed procedures to consult the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for the substance, and to alert Deputy Head of School of Science, Dr Cliff Seery, to their discovery.

In assessing the bottle of picric (2,4,6-Trinitrophenol), they found part of it had crystallised, making the acid unstable and potentially explosive.

"Our first thoughts were to leave the storeroom immediately and contact qualified services," Jacob said.

"There could be a chance that the chemical could ignite and possibly cause a chain-reaction with other chemicals in the storeroom and exacerbate the danger to the people in the building."

A 000 call was made to alert police and HAZMAT services and the building was evacuated while the University awaited an expert assessment of the risk level and the next steps.

Chemical waste experts were consulted to dispose of the substance safely, and then the area was given the all-clear. WorkCover also attended to assess the situation and make recommendations for improvements, which will be incorporated into a review of laboratory practices.

The audit Nic and Jacob were undertaking ahead of Semester 1 was part of a larger project to improve processes for chemical management at ACU. Nic had taken the initiative from late last year to check and update the lab's chemical information into an electronic database.

"To gain appropriate approvals, we consulted with an environmental expert late last year. Now Jacob and I are following their guidelines to put it into place. Once the database is complete, we will be able to better ensure hazards are prevented, as well as to improve the efficiency of managing laboratory resources," Nic said.

Jacob volunteered to help Nic with the audit and database as part of work experience for his Bachelor of Environmental Science (Honours) study.

"I believe that it is important that people help audit so potential dangers can be found and mitigated before they can compromise safety," Jacob said.

Deputy Head of School of Science Dr Cliff Seery said the incident really showed the truth of a well-known saying on campus, that "safety is everyone's responsibility."

"It was well-handled by Nic and Jacob and a really good example of people at the coalface identifying a risk and raising an alert right away," Cliff said.

"I think last week we really saw how everyone did take responsibility - right from the first person to identify the hazard, up to the Associate Vice-Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer. We had great support at all levels."

Nic has recently joined the North Sydney campus Work, Health and Safety Committee, which is made up of staff volunteers who assist with safety inspections on their local campus. He encourages other staff to get involved in campus safety.

"I think these measures help to improve the safety of the workplace and the safety of our students. Awareness is always good, the more people who have awareness of safety hazard prevention, the more people we will have that can help to prevent emergencies and to respond to any hazards," Nic said.

Jacob Downs, Cliff Seery and Nicola Pradella

Left to right: ACU student Jacob Downs, Deputy Head of School of Science Dr Cliff Seery and ACU Lab Technician Nicola Pradella

Keeping the ACU community safe

There are many staff members involved in keeping the ACU community safe through contributing to a variety of roles. These include serving as WHS committees members, Evacuation Wardens (Fire Wardens) and First Aid Officers. The University thanks these staff members for their ongoing efforts to ensure a safe environment on our campuses.

Staff who are interested in making an active contribution to wellbeing and safety on their campus are encouraged to contact ACU Work Health, Safety and Wellbeing Coordinator Tim Bruce on ext 2152 for more information.

More Evacuation Wardens are currently needed. Staff should contact their local Campus Operations Manager to express their interest in these positions.

Learn more about Work, Health and Safety 

ACU staff can also learn more by participating in a Work, Health and Safety videoconference on Tuesday 24 March. The session will provide training and awareness of safety practices at ACU. Staff who have recently commenced employment with ACU are particularly encouraged to participate.

Additionally, all ACU staff have free access to the SafetyHub online video library which has handy tips on avoiding and preventing common workplace hazards.