Hazardous Labs at Sana’a University

7 July 2015

Sana’a, Yemen, April 2015 –

Ahmad Fadael, 50, was diagnosed with a tumor in the nasopharynx – the upper throat behind the nose, six years after working with sulfuric substances at a chemistry lab inside Sana’a UniversityHe had to leave his job due to incapacitation.

Holding piles of medical reports, x-rays, and drug prescriptions for the tumor, the lean man is now spending whatever is left of his life on a bed at his modest home in Mathbah neighborhood in the Yemeni capital, or going from one hospital to another for chemotherapy and radiation sessions.

Dozens of students and nearly 50 staff members working at the university’s eight chemistry labs are, like Fadael, subjected to disease and injury due to lack of occupational safety gear. Lack of any medical risk insurance or compensation for work-related injuries is aggravating the situation.

The university presidency is accused of negligence. But it blames the situation on previous managements and budget deficits, according to staff interviewed by this journalist. The administration, labor union, and the management of medical services at Sana’a University say they have no exact statistics on the number of students and lab scientists and technicians who have been injured inside these labs.Hence, this investigative reporter had to visit all eight labs to collect figures and medical reports from Yemenis who have sustained occupational and health hazards from working there.

Nearly 90 percent of the interviewed workers said they have experienced superficial acid burns. Five percent suffered from deep burns and 60% from lung diseases, infections, and allergies. Sixty per cent of them also suffered from asphyxiation and fainting while 5% acquired cancer-related diseases.

Number of technicians affected by chemicals and acids in laboratories Type of injury
3 Sinus cancer
45 Slight acid burns
30 Lung diseases, allergy infections
30 Suffocation, fainting

None of these workers said they resorted to courts because their monthly salary cannot cover the lawyer’s fees. The Labor Law also does not explicitly determine the penalty for such violations.

Article 121 of the Presidential Decree 5 of 1995 states: “Unless insured in accordance with this law or the social insurance law, the employer is responsible for a worker’s occupational illnesses or injuries during, or, as a result of the job.” Fadael’s Tragedy Fadael, a technician, joined the chemistry lab at the Engineering Faculty in 1994.

Six years later, “my mouth and nose bled out every time I underwent an experiment involving burning sulfur to test samples”, he recalls. “I did not realize the risks related to burning this sulfuric substance, which needs to be done inside a very hot oven.”.

He says he was the only technician there doing this particular experiment. Despite rising gas and toxic fumes, Fadael was not provided with guidance related to protection from hazardous substances or the necessary protection gear in violation of Labor Law provisions and regulation requiring the employer to “take the necessary precautions for protecting the workers from damages arising from gas, dust, smoke, or industrial waste”.

With time, he lost his sense of smell. Months later, doctors at the state-run Al-Jumhoury Hospital informed him that he had a tumor in the nasopharynx. He applied both for compensation and for medical treatment costs. But the university’s presidency gave him YER 90,000 (less than $450) – a tenth of the cost of his treatment which exceeded YER 1 million ($4,650). Dr. Nahla Aqlan, oncologist and radiation specialist at Sanaa’s National Center of Oncology, said she had diagnosed a cancerous tumor in Fadael’s upper throat and recommended chemotherapy.

Fadael, who says that he could only consume liquids, lives on his monthly pension of YER 24,000 ($110). He asks: “How am I supposed to pay for the treatment?” Lawyer Nabila al-Mufti says the Health Insurance Law of 2011 guarantees workers’ rights in terms of compensation and treatment. A presidential decree was issued in October 2012 for the creation of a general commission for health and social insurance. But the commission has yet to see the light. “The reason for that is not financial, but failure and negligence by the official parties concerned”.

Number of university laboratory technicians (Public Planning, Administration and Statistics Department at Sana’a University) 

Faculty Male technicians Female technicians
Agriculture 7
Science 21 9
Human Medicine 9 2
Dentistry 6 1
Engineering 14
Education (Sana’a) 1 2
Education (Arhab) 5 2
Education (Khawlan) 3 2

Udowiya Laboratory: Suffocation and Fumes As soon as this reporter stepped into Udowiya Laboratory – the oldest lab at the Science Faculty – she immediately suffocated and began to cough. The stench of solutions and acid was all over. The lab, established in the mid-1970s, also lacked sufficient lighting.

The area of this laboratory, complies with the space specifications of 12 x 8 square meters. The preperation room, in which acids are used, is narrow and only has one small window and a small ventilation fan that cannot siphon out the gases and fumes. The sinks are dirty. The faucets are covered with rust. Different sized containers and boxes of chemical substances are scattered randomly on top of a cupboard covered with dust. There sits the thin, grey-haired Farouq al-Ariqi, the longest-serving staff member.

Al-Ariqi, 43, and father of three, began working at the laboratory after graduating with a history degree from Sana’a University. Today, his monthly salary stands at 67,000 riyals ($311). He works from 8 am until 6 pm. “We work very cautiously here amid the lack of safety gear.

The most hazardous substances we deal with every year are sulfur and benzoyl chloride, which is similar to tear-gas”. Al-Ariqi’s caution has not been adequate to avert slight injuries such as burns and coughs. However, he has not undergone medical examinations. “You work here at the university, but God help you when you get sick”, he says when asked about the role of the university in safeguarding the health of lab users.

At the same lab, teaching assistant Maymouna Ali Ahmad, 26, prepares distilled water to begin her experiment.. She says: “As a student, I often fainted and suffocated. But now, I choke when I prepare any substance or gas with strong fumes”. She acquired asthma because of working with hazardous substances, especially chlorobenzene. She faints about three times a month. “We even lack first aid in our laboratory.

When I faint, the students help me with whatever they have”. Medical tests she underwent at the Yemeni-German Hospital showed that she suffers from asthma and breathing difficulties due to inhaling chemical fumes.

She was advised to stay away from chemical substances and to see a specialized doctor on regular basis. The Science Faculty had to close down in mid-March 2014 because of poorly-equipped laboratories and lack of funds. A week later, it reopened after the government vowed to bail it out. Dr. Mohammad Shukri, the faculty’s dean, complains about “dismal shortages of material, equipment, substances, and protection gear for the students”.

This is preventing teachers from conducting scientific experimentation. Shukri said the university’s management is responsible for negligence and for the ill-equipped laboratories, because it is not allocating a sufficient budget “and pays no attention to us”. The dean says that he called on the management to give priority to supporting the laboratory in the faculty to ensure basic teaching. In return, the faculty got YER 3.6 million ($16,750) and YER 1.75 million ($5,000) have yet to be paid.

Sana’a University’s 2014 budget stood at YER 15 billion ($70 million), official records show. It also receives small grants from global donors. According to Shukri, “the workers’ burns, breathing problems, and fainting are taken up with the university’s presidency, but there is no reaction to these violated rights….”. In Defence of the University Sana’a University President Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Shargabi responds: “The university has not had safety means for the past 30 year”.

He adds: “I came to a ruined house, but I am exerting serious effort to support all scientific faculties by looking for resources, including taking money coming in from parallel academic programs and from the university budget, to help these laboratories”. Al-Shargabi, who assumed his post in late 2012, stresses that the university is on its way to solving these problems. He says that “some labs, which stopped functioning years ago, have been equipped and the faculties have started to rely on themselves to operate them”.

He hopes that “donors, or the private sector, would provide support to operate the labs and activate occupational safety procedures”. During this reporter’s field survey of the eight chemistry labs at Sana’a University, teaching stopped in some for a while.

This reporter observed the lack of safety awareness literature and good practice guidelines in the laboratories. Available guidelines did not go beyond simple posters that students pinned up about offering “advice on how to use gloves and masks and to avoid risks when dealing with hazardous chemical substances.”  Ali Qassem Ismail, undersecretary for educational development at the Higher Education Ministry says the latter is not responsible for the laboratories or for protecting their staff. Ismail says: “Sana’a University, according to the law, is financially and administratively independent.

We as a ministry are not bound by financial matters and our role is limited to supervision and regulation. If we receive a complaint about the laboratories from students or teaching staff, we send a committee to the university to meet with its president and the concerned.

If negligence is found, decisions are made and pursued”.He continues: “We have not received any formal complaints from the staff or students, other than those related to financial matters”. Education Faculty: Burning Labs Chemistry graduate Mohammad al-Salawi joined the university’s science laboratories in 2003.

He was transferred to the Education Faculty, which he describes as “the most hazardous” because most of the experiments conducted there involve using “highly-concentrated chemicals without a drop of water, causing rising toxic gas fumes and residue.” Al-Salawi confirms that dozens of students every year are faced with physical injuries during lab classes, including fainting and external and internal acid burns resulting from using their own mouths to siphon the substance.

Al-Salawi recalls an incident he witnessed: “One student used his mouth on a tube to siphon sulfuric acid because there were no suction devices. The acid filled up inside his mouth, causing burns and severe bleeding”. Sulfuric acid is one of the most dangerous substances used in 70% of lab experiments. The faculty lacks first aid facilities and its first aid kit only has Aspirin, according to Al-Salawi.

A first aid kit in the laboratories is supposed to include painkillers, wound sterilizers, burn ointment, and 10% sodium bicarbonate solution to wash the acid burns. Students and staff also use the flammable acetic acid and sodium, which explode when interacting with water. This reporter saw gas canisters inside the laboratory, although they are required to remain outdoors and connected to the indoor gas supply, through pipes. Three technicians and 50 students enter this laboratory every day. In 2000, a Dutch company completed a professional blueprint for the Education Faculty labs, according to Al-Salawi. But the faculty administration failed to activate the company’s related equipment and devices, such as an apparatus providing immediate treatment for burns.

In addition, the emergency exit does not function because the college refuses to give the key to the laboratory staff on ground they want to prevent theft and gas leaks. Mohammad Abdul Qawi al-Abssi, spokesman of the Sana’a University Workers’ Union, says the latter has repeatedly demanded that laboratory staff are provided with occupational safety gear. But the university has not responded to these demands. Al-Abssi says that the union can only help injured workers with modest amounts of funds – nothing compared to the high costs of medical treatment. Engineering Labs: Suffocations, Neglected Equipment Only two labs at the Engineering Faculty use chemical substances: The “health lab” that analyzes drinking and sewage water and the other for preparing the substances. According to health lab technician Mohammad al-Humairy, 42, the facility has no ventilation fans or any form of basic protection. Windows across the walls are not enough to function as proper ventilation. “I feel lethargic and sometimes I get migraines when I spend hours in the lab preparing sulfuric acid”, he says.

In the laboratory where Ahmad Fadael was injured, engineer Nasr Saif al-Thabhani, a lab technician for the past 20 years, says that the staff demanded salary increases to cover professional hazards. But these extras were only given to secretaries. Negligence despite Agriculture’s Support Despite the privileges that the Agriculture Faculty labs enjoy, students and staff criticize the administration’s inability to use them properly. Safety and first aid gear remain inactive. Fire extinguishers are expired and the windows are sealed with iron from the exterior, although they are supposed to be used as emergency exits. In addition, the necessary gear for dealing with hazardous substances, such as gloves, masks, and acid conveyors, are missing.

Khaled al-Qedmi, teaching assistance at the faculty for since 2014 says that unavailable substances to apply the experiments constitute the biggest problem. “Students have to conduct the experiments orally, without substances or solutions. Therefore, there aren’t many injuries or risks here because application is rare. Unfortunately, even the faucets have no water”. So far, the faculty “has not provided any training on safety or the risks involved, nor has it dispensed any safety gear”, he says. “We often face the risk of acid burns or electric shock, which ruin the clothes. We also have to use broken flasks.

” Al-Qedmi says equipment provided under an American grant has broken down because the administration does not know how to operate them, including the toxic gas suction compartments inside the lab and sensors and alarms if the gas concentration inside the lab rises above the permitted level. The central ventilation and hot water is also not working. Abdul Rahman Abu Hassan, teaching assistant at the chemistry lab since 2010 says that his hands and legs were burned several times while preparing solutions to mix the phosphorous color. He also suffers cough and breathing difficulties.

In one experiment, Abu Hassan put his mouth on a tube to suck sulfuric acid. “Drops of acid went into my mouth and I felt a sting and my mouth bled,” he recalls. “There was no tap or even bottled water to clean out the injury. I had to go to the college cafeteria to wash my mouth and reduce the acid concentration. My teeth hurt me for three days and I lost my sense of taste for some time,” he says.

Sulfuric acid is mixed with soil to determine the amount of elements it contains for plants and whether it needs more fertilizers. Upon heating the substance, toxic gas fumes rise as sulfuric dioxide. Medical School: Stores Piled with Toxic Substances There are two workers in each of the medical school’s three chemistry labs: two for chemical and biological analysis and one for general tests..

Walid al-Dabie, a former lab technician at the medical school and current assistant professor of biochemistry, explains the situation. “It is deteriorating despite the significant support the medical school receives. The labs are not adequately equipped to prevent staff and students from the risks of the experiments.” Al-Dabie elaborates: “We are exposed to severe asthma fits due to inhalation of hazardous substances and gases, such as ammonia, acetic acid, hydrochloric acid vapors (which kills the cells when it touches the skin), and sulfuric acid.

We are also exposed to acid burns because of the distilleries (which heat the water for vapor distillation).” Murtada Abdul Wareth al-Hammadi, 36, endured 10 years of hazards while working in the stores of the university’s science and medical faculties. At the end of 2013 he decided to ask for a transfer to an administrative job at the university to escape the dangers of these stores. But Al-Hammadi, who works for a monthly salary of YER 58,000 (approximately $270) now has nose aches because of the delay in transferring him.

This reporter accompanied Al-Hammadi to a hospital where he undertook his routine lab tests and chest x-rays. The medical report compiled by Dr. Al-Khader al-Qahera, internist and digestive system specialist at the Yemeni-German Hospital, said the patient suffers bronchial and sinus infections.

Al-Hammadi was advised to stay away from fumes, dust, and airborne chemical substances. He underwent surgery at a cost of YER 200,000 ($930). The university only reimbursed YER 40,000 (less than $200), he says. The medical school lab store lacks constant ventilation and a central suction system needed when the gases are removed from the containers, according to Al-Hammadi. Hamza al-Thabhani, a science student, recalls how drops of chemical elements landed on his hands and burnt them.

“Unfortunately, the lab does not supply us with any protection gloves and we even have to buy our own coats”. Labs Designed for a Dining Hall Chemistry lab expert Munther Abdullah Numan agreed to take this reporter on a tour of Sana’a University’s laboratories. He pointed out a number of design and construction mistakes. Some labs were not designed according to standard specifications but rather as extensions to dining halls and lecture rooms.

For example, specifications require laboratories to include a main entrance and an emergency exit. But the design for the science faculty labs ignored these specifications. The rest of the properly-designed laboratories at the faculty are locked up for safety and security reasons. Numan found that the substances and devices dating back to the 1980s and 1990s, had either expired or could no longer be used due to lack of maintenance.

Numan confirms that the chemical substances in use there such as hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, acetone, ammonia pose a risk to the health of the workers because they emit gases and fumes. He explains that these substances, including mercury, lead, chromium, and organic solvents, are disposed in the sewage pipes causing environmental pollution. In addition, the storage’s cupboards have wooden doors that are flammable.

Some gas installations were extended through openings in the water drainage system. As a result the brass pipes eroded causing gas leaks. Dozens of staff members and hundreds of students face injury and disease due to the university’s negligence and lack of protection tools. Meanwhile, different parties involved continue to trade blame and more medical reports pile up.

 Chemistry laboratories: International standards and specifications (Source: Umm Al-Qura University)  

 Location Preferably on ground floors; as far as possible from places of student crowds and administration offices; should be near sources of water and drainage and energy lines.
Area and space Proposed ground area of 96 square meters (12 x 8 meters); minimum height of 3.5 meters to disperse concentration of fumes and gases.
Ceiling, walls, floors Inactive material for ceilings and walls without linings made of wood or any other flammable material. Rough, non-slippery surface floors.
Doors, emergency exits Main door should be wide, easy to open and close. Must have an emergency exit at the back of the laboratory with an automatic emergency light above it.
Ventilation A sufficient number of windows at least 1.5 meters above the floor and a sufficient number of good quality ventilation fans specifically manufactured for laboratories.
Lighting There should be enough natural and/or artificial light distributed equally across the laboratory, in addition to automatic emergency lamps in case of power cuts.
Preparation, storage room A special room connected to the lab should be equipped with cupboards, a lab table, and refrigerator to store chemical substances. A small workshop should be available in this room for maintenance of basic devices.

* This investigation was conducted with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, ARIJ: www.arij.net.  


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