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Are Academic Labs Less Safe than Industrial Ones?

Criminal charges relating to a 2008 lab accident at UCLA continue to raise concerns over safety practices in all university labs.

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tert-Butyllithium. Image credit: en:User:Jeff Dahl, Wikimedia CommonsA recent article in the Toronto Star regarding a Dec. 29, 2008 incident in UCLA’s Molecular Sciences Building which resulted in the severe burning and eventual death of a young research associate, brings up the larger issue of safety in academic labs at large.

The 2008 case, which involved an experiment with tert-Butyllithium, led to criminal charges against Patrick Harran, the chemistry professor in charge of the lab. The article says it's the first time a lab accident has resulted in a criminal trial.

According to the Star, prosecutors argue that proper safety procedures were not enforced at the lab, and the research associate, 23-year-old Sheri Sangji, was too inexperienced to have been allowed to work on such a dangerous procedure by herself. They also mentioned that, even though Harran’s lab had been flagged for safety issues before, nothing was immediately done to fix the problems and he was given an extension on the date he had to fix the problems by. Also, two earlier accidents had involved students being badly burned at the school, but safety had not improved, the prosecution added.

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Harran was charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office with four felony labor code violations, which could mean up to four years of prison if he is convicted.

UCLA is standing by Harran, stating when Harran was orded to stand trial last year that Sanji’s death was not a crime, but an accident.

“The accident that took Sheri Sangji's life was a terrible tragedy for our campus, and I can't begin to imagine the devastation to her family. We must remember, however, that this was an accident, not a crime,” said UCLA chancellor Gene D. Block in a statement released on April 26, 2013. “Patrick Harran is a talented and dedicated faculty member, and our support for him is unwavering. Ever since the accident, UCLA has been working to enhance lab safety, and we will continue that work in the years ahead."

The case against UCLA has since led to a settlement where the school set up a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name, agreed to keep up an intensive lab safety program, and took responsibility for the accident. As for Harran, a judge ruled last August that there is enough evidence for his trial to proceed, setting off a debate over whether Harran is being unjustly treated or not.

According to the Star, most in the field agree that safety in industrial labs and academic labs is very different. Academic labs are more focused on advancing science and there is a laxer attitude toward even basic safety, as shown by a number of accidents in other university labs. However the article also stated that there are no solid stats to show without a doubt that academic labs are less safe than industrial ones.

Overall, building a culture of safety in academic labs appears to be much more difficult than doing so in industry.

“It was kind of common knowledge that laboratory people don’t use the proper (protective equipment) when they are in the lab … it was hard to convince the professors that they needed to,” UCLA’s laboratory safety manager was quoted by the Star as telling California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health interviewers following a lab accident at the school in November 2007.

Wayne Wood, a safety professional at McGill University, told the Star that academic scientists “are so focused on their research. They’re really intense individuals who really devote all their time and attention to trying to unravel the mysteries of science. They don’t necessarily have the personality profile of managers. Many are extremely intellectual, but maybe not the personality type who like to supervise people.”

-       With files from the Toronto Star