UH researcher who lost an arm in lab explosion fighting two battles

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Three years after losing part of her arm in a lab explosion at UH, Thea Ekins-Coward continues to struggle with what happened.

But she’s fighting on two fronts. One to get her life and career back. The other is a legal battle against the university.

Her attorney says Ekins-Coward has struggled to get a job, much less just doing everyday things. She has a long way to go and her legal battle can take just as long.

In March 2016, a powerful explosion inside a laboratory rocked a building at the UH Manoa campus. HFD determined that a wrong pressure gauge was used, which caused a spark that led to the explosion.

Ekins-Coward, a postdoctoral fellow was in that lab and lost part of her right arm. Her attorney says she has since moved back home to England and has struggled with getting her life back.

“She still is very traumatized by the event, it distresses her to speak about it still and she still can’t do a lot of things,” said attorney Claire Choo.

Things that most people take for granted.

“Even eating a steak, cutting a steak, she can’t do it. Someone has to cut up her food for her so that takes a toll,” said Choo.

She adds that Ekins-Coward is still trying to find the proper prosthetic. In the meantime, there’s the legal fight against UH which says that she was an employee at the time of the explosion. So she’s only entitled to workers compensation benefits, and cannot sue the university.

“We think that the amount that she would be given at workers compensation is not sufficient to cover the pain and suffering and the injuries, and the injury to her career that she suffered through because of this incident,” said Choo.

She says Ekins-Coward was never an employee and that UH made that clear when she was invited by UH to do her research.

“They told her specifically that she was not an employee and she didn’t get the benefits of being an employee,” said Choo.

She says UH then said it has an internal policy that considers researchers like Ekins-Coward as employees only to get workers compensation benefits. She is challenging this with the labor board.

“So our position is she was not an employee. They made it very clear that she was never an employee, and that you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” said Choo.

A hearing with the labor board is scheduled in December. Choo says it will likely take years before the issue is resolved because of appeals. UH says it is unable to comment on pending litigation.

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