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Science. Communication. Community.

Lab Safety: Who Is Responsible When Accidents Happen?

Today, we understand many of the dangers of laboratory research–but fatal accidents still happen in labs across the country. An upcoming court ruling could ultimately decide who is to blame.

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

A person enters a cleanroom. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

A person enters a cleanroom. Image credit: Stan Zurek/Courtesy of Cardiff University via Wikimedia commons.

Last week, I saw that my alma mater was advertising an upcoming performance of “Radium Girls”; in case you’re unfamiliar with the play, it tells a tragic true story of the women who worked painting glow-in-the-dark watch faces at the U.S. Radium factory in the early 20th century. Though the women who worked in the factory were told that the glow-in-the-dark radium paint was safe, their employer (and others in the research community) knew better, and many workers became ill—ultimately dying from radiation poisoning,

Thankfully we now understand that radium—and many other dangerous reagents needed in the laboratory—must be used with caution. However, now that laboratory accidents seem to have become isolated incidents, are we becoming complacent when it comes to safety?

Since the 2009 death of UCLA research assistant Sheri Sangji—involving an accidental fire caused by t-butyl lithium, a chemical that ignites when exposed to air—there has been increased attention to the chain of responsibility regarding laboratory accidents. Sangji was reportedly not wearing a lab coat at the time of the accident, and an investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health ruled that the incident resulted from insufficient safety training—bringing criminal charges against UCLA and Patrick Harran, the professor in whose lab she worked.

Like Sangji, I took a job in a research lab as a technician shortly after graduating from college. I had been previously trained on safety procedures as a science major in college, and I completed the requisite safety training required by my new employer as a technician. However, in the two years I spent as a technician in the lab and the three years I spent doing research in graduate school, I wore a lab coat probably less than 30 times.

No one else in my lab wore coats or goggles, so I assumed it was just a precaution that only applied in certain situations. I understood my lab—a fruit fly genetics laboratory—to be fairly safe, and I was lucky; I never had an accident. In fact, I’m sure that many other hundreds of researchers flout safety guidelines every day without any consequences. But when things do occasionally go very wrong, who is liable?

Although many in the science and research community have expressed their opinions on Sangji’s case (see here and here), we could soon hear what the court has to say. The charges brought against UCLA were dropped last year after a settlement, but Harran—the professor Sangji worked for—will be back in court on November 20, according to UCLA’s Daily Bruin.

The criminal case is said to be the first of its kind involving an academic lab, so the court’s ruling could have major implications for safety practices in universities and research institutes across the country.

But what do you think? Have you worked in a lab—and if so, did you follow every safety protocol? Should universities require more thorough training—and heavily enforce safety practices? Should employees and students be penalized or reprimanded for not strictly following safety procedures? Should professors keep closer tabs on actual lab safety practices?

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About jstoll01

Jessica began her journalistic endeavors as an embarrassingly informal food critic for her college newspaper. After dropping the fork and picking up a micropipettor, she spent two years as a genetics research technician and three years in graduate school before trying her hand at science writing. Upon receiving a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012, Jessica participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program as a Science Desk intern at NPR in Washington, D.C. There, she contributed a number of posts to the health blog (Shots) and the food blog (The Salt). She continues to write regularly for the NPR blogs, National Geographic News and other media outlets as a freelancer, currently based in Southern California.

One comment on “Lab Safety: Who Is Responsible When Accidents Happen?

  1. Kerstin Nordstrom (@DrKerstin)
    November 18, 2013

    It’s amazing the laundry list of supposed responsibilities a university professor takes on, either explicitly or implicitly. It seems, despite the fact that their research labs are primarily and fundamentally responsible for the success of their career, that the role of “manager” often gets the shortest end of the stick. This includes things from the most basic lab pop-in to actually managing a proper inventory and protocol.

    It’s too easy to overlook this role. Your time is under great constraints. You have teaching, writing, meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings, and it can be overwhelming, on top of all of this, to get bogged down in the details of the day-to-day operations.

    So I think many professors sort of end up shrugging and just hope all is well in the lab. This is obviously a dangerous (non)stance to take; it’s not fair to your workers.

    But I don’t think the professors are entirely at fault either, because there is no time for this, and they likely weren’t trained to be managers anyway.

    More university-level trainings and regulations won’t solve the problem, people in attendance often zone out during those, and more and more those courses are often online, which creates even less opportunities for oversight.

    What I think could help solve the problem is the creation of more lab manager positions. Ideally, these would be trained scientists so they had some technical know-how. To save on cost, these people could each manage a handful of labs. This might make some of the Health and Safety people redundant (in fact, these people could fill some of these jobs) and that would also save same money. These lab manager positions are already not uncommon in biological labs, but I believe need to become more widespread. Professors just seem to be getting busier and busier.

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This entry was posted on November 17, 2013 by in Health, Policy, Research and tagged , , .
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