Pune: Damaged by fire and its after-effects, multiple IISER labs shut, institute to adopt tighter safety measures

On the possible cause behind the fire, the officials called it an accidental spillage of flammable liquid onto the fume hood bench-top, and the solvent coming in contact with a hot air-drying apparatus in the vicinity.

Multiple laboratories in the Chemistry department, located in the main building of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, (IISER), have sustained damage due to a major fire that broke out in one of the laboratories last Friday. Since then, these labs have remained shut for operations.

At the time of the incident, five students were working at the Organic Chemistry lab, where the fire originated. Because of heavy fumes, raging smoke and fire emanating from the second floor of the building, it took Fire Brigade personnel of Pune Municipal Corporation over two-and-a-half hours to douse the blaze and bring the situation under control. This was the first fire incident in the history of IISER, Pune.

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A student, who was working in the lab where the fire broke out, had sustained minor burn injuries. The student was hospitalised following the incident and is recuperating well.

In a written reply to queries by The Indian Express, IISER officials stated on Wednesday, “A committee, appointed by the director, IISER, Pune, surveyed the building affected by the fire. They found that the lab where the fire had broken out has been damaged completely. Few other labs on the ground, first and second floors, too, suffered varying degrees of damage, including possible damage to analytical or research equipment. The damage could be due to direct exposure to fire, heat, soot, ash or water.”

For five days now, the area around the fire accident site has been sealed and cordoned off. Other offices and labs in the main building, outside the Chemistry department wing in the main building, had resumed work on Monday.

With soot and unwanted remnants post the fire accident present at the site, the full extent of damage is still being ascertained and the inquiry committee is carrying out assessments. Several equipments in these affected labs have been put away from use temporarily. Their future working condition will be ascertained only after some trial runs.

“An estimate of the cost of the loss is being prepared as a few labs attached to the damaged lab have been affected,” the officials added.

According to institute officials, the fire originated in a fume hood inside the lab, where a student was working around 12 noon last Friday.

On the possible cause behind the fire, the officials called it an accidental spillage of flammable liquid onto the fume hood bench-top, and the solvent coming in contact with a hot air-drying apparatus in the vicinity.

The fire soon spread onto the student’s lab coat and clothes. But fellow labmates acted quickly and tried to bring the situation under control.

“The rest of the members present in the laboratory responded to the situation immediately. One of them attended to the student and extinguished the fire on the student’s clothes by wrapping the person in a fire blanket,” said officials.

With the fire still raging, faculty members and students from adjacent rooms, as well as institute staff, rushed to the spot. Using about 25 fire extinguishers, they made all possible attempts to contain the fire in the fume hood for about 25 minutes. On realising that the flames were fast spreading towards the duct of the fume hood and the false ceiling of the room, the IISER staff immediately dialled emergency and sought the Fire Brigade’s help.

Meanwhile, with multiple labs now closed, students attached to them will be relocated to other laboratories with IISER, Pune, and some to the neighbouring CSIR – National Chemical Laboratory.

“The institute is trying to arrange alternate working space for researchers whose laboratories have been affected. IISER, Pune is grateful to CSIR – NCL for offering working space,” the statement read.

In the wake of the fire, the institute has decided to take a re-look into its safety measures and standard protocols that are presently in place.

In order to avoid any repeat of such an incident on its campus, IISER has initiated a review of its existing lab safety measures across all sections. “The committee, appointed to investigate the fire incident, will be looking to understand the contributing factors for the spread of the fire. The committee’s recommendations in this regard are expected to guide changes and improvements to the lab safety measures in place at the institute,” the officials noted.

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