Posts Tagged ‘science’

More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Chemical & Engineering News has a followup story on the UCLA lab fire which killed Sheri Sangji in December 2008. The University of California, Los Angeles has paid the OSHA fine but is appealing the state’s findings of workplace safety violations. According to the article, UCLA’s vice chancellor for legal affairs, said the university’s appeal was necessary to ensure “that there was no citation or finding that can be used against the university in any future proceeding.”
We recently profiled the Sangji case, echoing some of the preventive measures suggested by the original article. Our post drew some push back in our comment section. Chemjobber disagreed with our recommendation and pointed to an article he wrote disputing much of the original article. (He has covered the Sangji case extensively over a series of posts so if the case interests you from either a science or a safety perspective, we’ve listed some of his excellent entries at the end of our post.)
Another commenter said “Certainly agree that suggestion to make safety records a key driver for tenure descisions is ignorant. Not to mention self-serving, when made by a “safety professional.”
We had a chuckle at the use of the scare quotes on the term safety professional…but in this case, it is spot on. Just to clarify the record, nobody at Lynch Ryan is a “safety professional” and we don’t make any money from providing safety services. In point of fact, if we really wanted to be self-serving about things, we would keep our mouths shut about safety because more frequent workplace accidents usually mean we make more money — out-of-control workers comp costs are generally what drive employers to seek our consulting services. Despite this, we would happily see workplace accidents and injuries eliminated and feel confident we could find another business niche were that the case. Maybe we would go back to school and study chemistry!
Regardless, we don’t think safety professionals should be lightly dismissed. We have seen other “exotic” workplaces involving science, medicine, and technology make their peace with safety standards and oversight and still be innovative and competitive. And in this case, if Cal/OSHA is correct, there was nothing particularly exotic about the safety procedure that might have saved this young worker’s life. They cite the lack of a lab coat as the single most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji’s death. And as the C&E story notes, on a recent lab walk-through by union reps, people in the lab still weren’t wearing lab coats.
Some workplaces come by safety voluntarily with a commitment from the top. Other employers – even generally well meaning employers – don’t truly embrace safety until they have had paid some very steep price. Sometimes that price is a gut-wrenching human one, as when a worker dies; other times, the toll is purely economic, in high workers comp costs, ruinous lawsuits, and bad publicity. Unfortunately, money is often the best change agent. That, and the push provided by standards and enforcement under OSHA.
While the case under discussion involved a paid employee, many workers in academic labs are students so workers’ comp generally doesn’t come into play. We don’t believe that making lab and worker safety standards a factor in tax-funded research and grants is a particularly radical suggestion. We would also favor safety being a line item in any performance reviews for professors who oversee labs as is often the case in private industry. Right now, the professor in the UCLA lab will likely suffer an enormous personal toll; we favor prospective and preventative measures over retrospective ones.
In any case, we thank our commenters for their opinions and we would point any interested readers to the fascinating comments that followed the original article in Slate’s discussion forum. Students, scientists, private lab workers and safety professionals all weigh in, and as would be expected, opinions run the gamut. Some agree with much of the article citing a prevailing culture of bravado and a tendency to view safety as the “the redheaded stepchild” or “the scapegoat who took the fall when anything bad happened.” Others see safety as the responsibility of the individual, with one prickly commenter going so far as to suggest that Sangji’s carelessness was such that her death should have been labeled as a suicide. Yikes.
To follow this story as it develops, we refer you to Chemjobber. For those interested, here are some of his posts to date, with the most recent post at the top
Where is Sheri Sangji’s notebook?: further details emerge in the UCLA/tBuLi case
Sheri Sangji update: recent articles
Expectation”: more details emerge about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case
Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool?
Critiquing the LA Times Sangji article, etc.
What happened to Sheri Sangji?

Death in the lab: why aren’t university labs safer?

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Earlier this year, 23 year-old research assistant Sheri Sangji suffered an excruciating death after having been engulfed in flames in a UCLA science laboratory. A drop of t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air, spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. Sheri suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body. Beryl Lieff Benderly writes about Sheri’s death in Slate, raising the question of what makes academic laboratories such dangerous places to work? Benderly notes that the safety failures that led to this fatality were unfortunately not an anomaly in private academic laboratories:

The death of a healthy young woman from a chemical spill at a UCLA lab is deeply shocking. But the presence of flagrant safety violations at a major research university is no surprise. After reading about the Sangji incident and others like it, a columnist for the peer-reviewed journal Chemical Health and Safety wrote that he’d come to the “disheartening conclusion that most academic laboratories are unsafe venues for work or study.” Though no one keeps comprehensive national statistics on laboratory safety incidents, James Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Mass., estimates that accidents and injuries occur hundreds of times more frequently in academic labs than in industrial ones.

In the wake of this accident, Cal/OSHA imposed a $31,875 penalty, citing safety lapses and lack of training. Benderly notes that had Sheri been a student rather than a paid technician, her death would not have been investigated by OSHA because the occupational health and safety laws that protect workers in hazardous jobs apply only to employees, not to students. The contrast between the culture, attitudes and practices of private laboratories and academia can be dramatic. Benderly describes an all-too-frequent academic machismo that can be disdainful of practices that would enhance safety, viewing them as bureaucratic and potentially stifling to academic freedom. In fairness, similar arguments and protestations have been raised by various private industry segments in response to OSHA standards, but the difference is in accountability. With most federal grants, “… applicants are routinely asked to document the steps they will take to safeguard the people and vertebrate animals they’ll be studying, but they needn’t provide any information on how they’ll protect the experimenters themselves.”
In another article for ScienceCareers, Benderly uses this incident as a springboard to discuss the issue of safety in academic laboratories in greater depth. In Taken for Granted: The Burning Question of Laboratory Safety, after examining various reports of the accident, she points to two areas that require attention, both in the UCLA lab, and frequently in other academic settings. These will be no surprise to safety professionals anywhere: better training and the need for a safety commitment that starts with the senior-most level of an organization. “The impetus to make safety a priority in academic labs must come from those able to enforce consequences.”
She is right. There are rock star academics whose research can bring huge grants and critical acclaim to a university. Safety is generally not a criteria that is evaluated as a part of their record, but it certainly should be. Benderly makes a compelling case that federal funding sources and university officials need to add safety as a criteria of evaluation to foster a culture of safety that will protect researchers as well as the research subjects.