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” is how university officials almost invariably describe the deaths and injuries from lab mishaps. and totally preventable,” is how safety expert Neil Langerman described the UCLA fire to me shortly after Sangji died.The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health concurred. incidents invariably reach the same conclusion: Young scientists and scholars working in university laboratories are failed — and put at risk — by the people who should be protecting them.Productivity, defined as accumulating data that can be transformed into as many journal articles as possible, is the “cultural imperative,” says a 2014 National Academies report.
Only “nominally subordinate” to department chairs, deans, and other administrators, scientists with grants (generally referred to as principal investigators, or PIs) can “in practice do pretty much whatever they want so long as they do not stray too far into some other fief’s territory,” Mc Croskey wrote.
Beyond that, successful lab chiefs hold the trump card of being able to move to a competing university.
At Texas Tech, the CSB found that poor communication and carelessness in the lab allowed a student to scale up a chemical reaction to an unsafe level and also to remove his basic eye protection. Further, Cal/OSHA noted, the lab neither required anyone to wear appropriate protective apparel nor provided them with it.
The death at Yale resulted from allowing students to work alone at a powerful 7-foot-long lathe — a machine used in wood and metalworking — with the safety shut-off switch an unmanageable distance from the worker. Even more troubling, safety issues had previously been flagged at all of these laboratories.
After the disasters, UCLA and Hawaii each received citations and fines for serious (that is, potentially life-threatening) violations from state safety agencies that had also noted earlier, unresolved issues.
But these citations raise another important and often overlooked point.
On this afternoon, as she prepared the standard combination of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide used each day to feed the bacteria the lab was studying, the pressurized tank of flammable gas exploded. “I’m in the basement,” a caller reporting the blast told the 911 operator, according to fire department transcripts. Ekins-Coward survived, but the blast serves as yet another reminder that too many young science scholars have been maimed or killed in American university laboratories in recent years.
Among the other notable incidents: In 2011, Michele Dufault, a 22-year-old physics major at Yale, was fatally strangled when her hair caught in a machine as she worked on her senior project. Incidents in other countries range from the death of postdoctoral researcher Meng Xiangjian in China last December, killed when a hydrogen tank exploded at Tsinghua University, to perhaps the worst academic lab safety disaster on record: the explosion of improperly stored tanks of flammable hydrogen gas at Argentina’s National University of Rio Cuarto in 2007, which killed five faculty members and a student and injured nearly two dozen others.
In 2010, a 29-year-old Texas Tech graduate student, Preston Brown, lost three fingers and suffered damage to his eyes and face when a compound he was stirring in a mortar blew up. But many experts believe this list of scattered incidents deeply underestimates the problem — and the risks involved.
The previous year, Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, a 23-year-old lab technician at the University of California, Los Angeles, died from third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body after her sweater caught fire as she tried to transfer a notoriously flammable liquid from one container to another. Less publicized injuries have happened, too, but no precise count exists, because no one — no government agency, no association of universities — systematically tracks safety violations at academic laboratories.