More on the painful path to academic lab safety

June 19th, 2013 by Julie Ferguson

Later this month, UCLA’s chemistry professor Patrick Harran will face four felony charges in the laboratory death of his 23-year old research assistant Sheri Sangji. Harran is pleading not guilty to charges that revolve around his alleged failure to provide protective equipment and clothing, failure to provide training, and failure to correct unsafe working conditions. By way of background: In December 2008, Sheri Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air. A drop spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. She suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body, and died 18 days after the fire.
Our usual go-to source on this case is the blogger Chemjobber, who reported on some of the court proceedings leading up to these charges. He includes this statement from the trial judge

In court today, Judge Lisa B. Lench heard brief oral arguments from both sides, first on the issue to dismiss and then on the motion to reduce charges. She commented that the issues presented in the case were interesting and novel. She also said that Harran was unique compared with the usual defendants moving through the criminal justice system.

The judge is right in using the word “unique.” Employers rarely face criminal charges for worker deaths. Generally, in all but the most egregious circumstances (and even then…), workers comp is the exclusive remedy for employee grievances and OSHA is the usual path for safety violations. In this case, a fine was imposed on UCLA.
One of the other unique things about this case is the culture in which this accident occurred. There’s a strong “blame the victim” thread that runs through comments on stories, as well as protestations that the academic and/or the scientific arena is “different.” When we first read about and discussed the case,some criticism was directed at us for naivete, stating that health and safety personnel were unqualified to oversee “exotic” scientific protocols. (See our prior posts, More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji and Follow-up on the death of Sheri Sangji: a painful path to academic lab safety.)
Sheri Sangji’s death and the subsequent criminal proceedings against Harran have sparked a great deal of controversy in the academic scientific community – and on the more positive side, appear to have been a catalyst for a more serious look at university lab safety. Beryl Lieff Benderly of Science reports on a yearlong study of lab safety in nonindustrial institutions that was launched in May by the National Academies:

“An overriding theme at the meeting was the nature and size of the disparity between safety cultures and practices in industrial and academic settings. I have long heard from safety experts–and stated in my writing–that industry’s safety record far surpasses that of academe. Typical of this view is a letter by officials of three major industrial corporations, Dow, Corning, and DuPont, that was recently published in Chemical & Engineering News and was quoted at the May meeting. “The facts are unequivocal,” the letter asserts. “Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab.”

Benderly goes on to explore many reasons why a safety gap exists in the academic environment – among them, a wide variation in or lack of standards, a high value on independence, the lack of a hierarchical structure to enforce accountability, and various cultural barriers and resistance:

“As a result, the report continues, “At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom. … To combat cultural issues (such as fiefdoms) and bring a focus to safety within any given organization, it is important to ensure that the reporting structure allows for communication of safety information to those within the organizational hierarchy that have the authority and resources to implement safety change.”

The Harran trial will be watched closely by many in academia – it’s a painful situation all around. The best possible outcome of this tragic situation would be a heightened focus on lab worker safety – and it appears to be having some effect in prompting greater industry/education partnerships to heighten safety. Case in point: the recently launched Dow Lab Safety Academy.

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