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Suit against UCLA in fatal lab fire raises question of who is responsible for safety.

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Right before 2011 ended (and, as it happened, right before the statute of limitations ran out), the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed felony charges against the University of California regents and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in connection with a December 2008 fire in Harran's lab that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old staff research assistant, Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji.

As reported by The Los Angeles Times:

Harran and the UC regents are charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. They are accused of failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, to require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training.

Harran, 42, faces up to 4½ years in state prison, Robison said. He is out of town and will surrender to authorities when he returns, said his lawyer, Thomas O'Brien, who declined to comment further.

UCLA could be fined up to $1.5 million for each of the three counts.

[UCLA vice chancellor for legal affairs Kevin] Reed described the incident as "an unfathomable tragedy," but not a crime.

The article notes that Sangji was working as a staff research assistant in Harran's lab while she was applying to law schools. It mentions that she was a 2008 graduate of Pomona College but doesn't mention whether she had any particular background in chemistry.

As it happens, the work she was doing in the Harran lab presented particular hazards:

Sangji was transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin, causing second- and third-degree burns.

In May 2009, Cal/OSHA fined UCLA a total of $31,875 after finding that Sangji had not been trained properly and was not wearing protective clothing.

Two months before the fatal fire, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen deficiencies in the same lab, according to internal investigative and inspection reports reviewed by The Times. Inspectors found that employees were not wearing requisite protective lab coats and that flammable liquids and volatile chemicals were stored improperly.

Corrective actions were not taken before the fire, the records showed.

Actions to address the safety deficiencies were taken after the fire, but these were, obviously, too late to save Sangji.

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not interested in talking about legalities here -- whether for the particular case the Los Angeles DA's office will be pursuing against UCLA or for academic research labs more generally.

Rather, I want to talk about ethics.

Knowledge-building can be a risky business. In some situations, it involves materials that pose direct dangers to the people handling them, to the people in the vicinity, and even to people some distance away who are just trying to get on with their lives (e.g., if the hazardous materials get out into our shared environment).

Generally, scientists doing research that involves hazardous materials do what they can to find out how to mitigate the hazards. They learn appropriate ways of handling the materials, of disposing of them, of protecting themselves and others in case of accidents.

But, knowing the right ways to deal with hazardous materials is not sufficient to mitigate the risks. Proper procedures need to be implemented. Otherwise, your knowledge about the risks of hazardous materials is mostly useful in explaining bad outcomes after they happen.

So, who is ethically responsible for keeping an academic chemistry lab safe? And what exactly is the shape this responsibility takes -- that is, what should he or she be doing to fulfill that obligation?

What's the responsibility of the principal investigator, the scientist leading the research project and, in most cases, heading the lab?

What's the responsibility of the staff research assistant or technician, doing necessary labor in the lab for a paycheck?

What's the responsibility of the graduate student in the research group, trying to learn how to do original research and to master the various skills he or she will need to become a PI someday? (It's worth noting here that there's a pretty big power differential between grad students and PIs, which may matter as far as how we apportion responsibility. Still, this doesn't mean that those with less power have no ethical obligations pulling on them.)

What's the responsibility of the institution under whose auspices the lab is operating? When a safety inspection turns up problems and issues a list of issues that must be corrected, has that responsibility been discharged? When faculty members hire new staff research assistants, or technicians, or graduate students, does the institution have any specific obligations to them (as far as providing safety training, or a place to bring their safety concerns, or protective gear), or does this all fall to the PI?

And, what kind of obligations do these parties have in the case that one of the other players falls down on some of his or her obligations?

If I were still working in a chemistry lab, thinking through ethical dimensions like these before anything bad happened would not strike me as a purely academic exercise. Rather, it would be essential to ensuring that everyone stays as safe as possible.

So, let's talk about what that would look like.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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