Science. Communication. Community.
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.
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?