How Does Academic Lab Safety Impact Your Workplace?
The graduates that your company depends upon for its future success are probably being steeped as undergraduates in a lax safety environment.
After instructing an U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10-hr Industrial Safety course at the 2016 Ceramics Expo in Cleveland, Ohio, I was invited by Edgar Lara-Curzio of Oak Ridge National Laboratory to participate in the “Best Practices in Academic Laboratory Safety” symposium at the 2017 Material Science & Technology (MS&T) meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Not having witnessed any laboratory injuries during my undergraduate or graduate studies, and having conducted forensic investigations of industrial accidents for a number of years, I thought, “How dangerous could academic laboratories be?”
After conducting some background research, I have a confession to make: I now realize that my university classmates and I lived a charmed existence in the laboratory. I was unaware how dangerous academic laboratories could be—and, in too many cases, are. I was also unaware of the deaths and injuries that have occurred at academic laboratories in the U.S. and abroad in the last 10-15 years. In addition to the tragic loss of young lives, the incidents cast a pall over the careers of the promising academic researchers who were their advisors or supervisors. To make this even more tragic, the events were preventable.
Hard data in this area is difficult to find, largely because those who are not W-2 employees (i.e., undergraduates who pay tuition to participate in labs) do not fall under OSHA jurisdiction. However, some general idea of the scope of the problem is available. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the rate of recordable incidents in scientific research and development services has fallen from 2.1 per 100 full-time employees in 2003 to 1.2 in 2009. But the government does not track major accidents or near misses specifically in academic laboratories.
“Anecdotally, most people agree that university labs have more frequent and more frequently serious accidents than industry,” said Dorothy Zolandz, director of the National Academies Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology.1
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), a federal agency that investigates chemical events and industrial accidents such as refinery explosions, reported its findings at the August 2010 meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, Mass. Rafael Moure-Eraso, CSB chairman, stated that the board had gathered “preliminary media reports of around 120 university chemistry accidents since 2001, and concluded that “safety practices at U.S. universities leave a lot to be desired.”1
In a separate study, it was estimated that workers in university labs (including 110,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as uncounted undergraduates and technicians) are 11 times more likely to get hurt in a university lab than in an industrial lab.2 That is an astounding result. Would you want to work in such an environment? Would you want your university-attending children to work there?
Unfortunately, the examples of injuries and fatalities are many. In 2005, a biology professor at Cleveland State University was electrocuted when he plugged in a light using an ungrounded plug. That same year, an explosion in a Stanford University lab critically injured a postdoctoral researcher. In 2006, Tufts University was fined by the federal OSHA after two lab technicians were exposed to potentially lethal botulinum toxin when one opened a centrifuge prematurely. Also in 2006, a nitrogen cylinder that had been tampered with exploded, causing extensive damage to a building at Texas A&M. In 2008, an explosion in a University of Rochester laser lab left one employee seriously injured.3 In 2009, a graduate chemistry student at Texas Tech University lost three fingers on his left hand while grinding chunks of nickel hydrazine perchlorate—using 100 times the recommended amount—when it detonated. In 2011, a 22-year-old undergraduate student died of asphyxiation in the early hours of April 13 when her hair became tangled in a lathe at Yale University’s Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.1
The incident that has received the most attention is that of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji. A recent graduate of Pomona College with a degree in chemistry, the 23-year-old was working as a research assistant to UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran as way to earn money between her college graduation and law school the coming September. Around 1 p.m. on December 29, 2008, Sangji began an experiment involving a pyrophoric liquid (one that ignites when exposed to air) called tert-butyllithium. In brief, the plastic syringe she was using to transfer the liquid came apart in her hands, spilling the liquid, which instantly ignited, setting her sweatshirt ablaze (she was not wearing a lab coat). Screaming in pain and panic, she ran for the door—and away from the emergency shower located just feet from her. A nearby postdoctoral student frantically attempted to use his lab coat to smother the fire engulfing Sangji. When it, too, began to burn, he tried water from a sink. A second postdoctoral student ran to call 911 and to summon Professor Harran from the floor above. Only when emergency responders arrived did anyone drench Sangji under the shower. She was admitted to the intensive care unit of the Grossman Burn Center with third-degree burns over 40% of her body. In the ensuing days, Sangji’s burns deepened, and her organs began to fail. On January 16, 2009, she succumbed to her injuries.
Remarkably, despite working with pyrophoric liquids, no one in her lab had received training regarding what to do in case of fire, nor were they required to wear flame-retardant lab coats. Because Sangji was an employee and not a student, the incident was investigated by California OSHA. In May 2009, Cal/OSHA fined the University of California $31,875 on four violations of the occupational safety law: lack of required safety training, lack of needed protective equipment, failure to maintain an “effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program” and lack of required training records. It classified the first three violations as “serious,” indicating a likelihood of serious injury or death.
In his final 95-page report released in December 2009, investigator Brian Baudendistel of Cal/OSHA concluded that “Dr. Harran simply disregarded the open and obvious dangers presented in this case and permitted victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.” He sent the report to the district attorney and recommended a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
In December 2011, the Los Angeles district attorney charged Professor Harran and the regents of the University of California with three felony counts, later raised to four, of willful violations of California’s labor code with a resultant death. Conviction on all counts carried up to four-and-a-half years in prison.
In July 2012, the university regents settled with the district attorney. They agreed to “accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated;” to create a law school scholarship in Sangji’s name; and to establish, in all the chemistry labs on all of the system’s 10 campuses, an extensive program of required safety training and compliance for all lab workers. In exchange, the district attorney dropped the felony charges.
In May 2014, the district attorney reached a settlement with Harran. Haran would accept “responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated” but would not plead guilty. The district attorney would dismiss the charges if, during five years of probation, Harran: teaches summer courses in chemistry to disadvantaged high school graduates, lectures incoming UCLA chemistry students about lab safety, performs 800 hours of service in the UCLA hospital, and donates $10,000 to the burn center where Sangji died.
Never before had an academic institution come under a legal standard equivalent to that found in industry, where management enforces safety from the top down. However, because the settlement allowed Harran to avoid criminal penalties, the landmark case that many had hoped would set a new standard for accountability in academic labs across the country ended without settling the legal question of whether Haran had personal responsibility for the safety of students and workers.
Implications for Industry
This is all very sobering, but how does this impact your manufacturing operation and our industry? The graduates that your company depends upon for its future success are probably being steeped as undergraduates in a lax safety environment. If this becomes the “norm” for them at the university, they will bring this ethic into your workplace. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to your company if they were instead exposed to a safety culture at the university that is every bit as rigorous as the one you must maintain in your factory?
Instead, what if the college graduates you hire had gained a culture of safety as part of their academic training and brought that ethic to your workplace? Would your OSHA recordable incidents decrease? Would you have to spend less time on “remedial” safety training?
I invite you to be part of this conversation. Please join us for presentations and a panel discussion on this topic at MS&T 2017, which will take place October 8-12, at the Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. I look forward to meeting you there.
1. Van Noorden, Richard, “A Death in the Lab: Fatality Adds Further Momentum to Calls for a Shake-up in Academic Safety Culture,” published online April 18, 2011, accessed May 8, 2017, www.nature.com/news/2011/110418/full/472270a.html.
2. Lief Benderly, Beryl, “Death in the Lab,” published online April 30, 2015, accessed May 8, 2017, http://discovermagazine.com/2015/june/20-death-in-the-lab.
3. Lief Benderly, Beryl, “Explosions in the Lab: What Can be Learned from the Death of a Young Biochemist at UCLA?,” published online May 22, 2009, accessed May 8, 2017, www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2009/05/explosions_in_the_lab.html.
Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media.