To keep up with the competition--including a Japanese laboratory doing the same sort of research--management at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) routinely overlooked safety violations to keep the lab's particle accelerators running. That's the conclusion of a Department of Energy (DOE) investigation into a serious electrical accident at the DOE high-energy physics facility in Menlo Park, California (Science Now, 25 October 2004). Ironically, that science-at-all costs philosophy has led to the indefinite shutdown of SLAC's particle accelerators pending improvements in the lab's safety procedures.
The 11 October accident occurred when an electrician tried to install a circuit breaker in a 480 volt power panel without shutting off electricity to the panel, a practice known as "hot work." A short caused an explosion that set the electrician's clothes on fire. He suffered severe burns over 50% of his body and was hospitalized for several weeks. The accident automatically triggered the inquiry by DOE's Office of Environment, Safety, and Health.
The investigators' report, issued yesterday, found plenty of blame to go around. There was no justification for installing the breaker with the power on, it concluded, and the SLAC field supervisor who ordered the work never obtained the required "hot work" permit. The electrician, a contractor, lacked the face shield, hood, fire-resistant clothing, and insulated tools that would have protected him. Moreover, according to the report, local DOE officials had not been pressing the lab to follow its own safety regulations. But investigators directed their harshest criticism at laboratory management. "It appears that SLAC has consistently placed operations ahead of safety," the report says. Investigators found that "hot work" was routinely performed without proper hazard analysis or permits. Management allowed such breaches of protocol to keep the lab's accelerators running and the data flowing, investigators found: "SLAC's emphasis on the scientific mission as a means to secure funding from the [DOE] Office of Science and compete with other laboratories reached [the field supervisor's] level as direction to 'just get the job done.'" The lab flagship PEP-II particle collider and other accelerators had been taken down for scheduled repairs and improvements in July but were scheduled to resume operations in mid-October."We will not in any way dispute or comment on the findings of the report," says laboratory spokesperson Neil Calder. "The report is the report. We respect that, and now we can get on with it and use [the report] as a means of going ahead" to improve safety. The next step is a corrective plan, to be submitted to DOE by early February. Meanwhile, SLAC's accelerators remain idle. That means experimenters working on the laboratory's BaBar particle detector, which is fed by PEP-II, continue to lose ground to competitors at the KEK laboratory in Tsukuba, Japan, whose Belle experiment is up and taking data.
The SLAC web site