Earlier this month, prosecutors in Los Angeles reached a plea agreement with UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in the criminal case against him in connection with the 2008 lab accident that resulted in the death of 23-year-old staff research assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji. Harran, who was facing more than 4 years of jail time if convicted, instead will perform 800 hours of community service and may find himself back in court in the event that his lab is found to have new safety violations in the next five years.

The Sangji family is not satisfied that the plea punishes Harran enough. My worry is whether the resolution of this case has a positive impact on safety in academic labs and research settings.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education,

Several [independent safety advocates] agreed that universities' research laboratories still remain more dangerous than their corporate counterparts. Yet they also expressed confidence that the impetus for improvement brought by the first filing ever of criminal charges over a fatal university lab accident has not been diluted by the plea bargain. …

[T]he action by California prosecutors "has gotten the attention of virtually every research chemist out there," even in states that may seem more reluctant to pursue such cases, [Neal R. Langerman, a former associate professor of chemistry at Utah State University who now heads Advanced Chemical Safety, a consulting firm] said. "This is precedent-setting, and now that the precedent is set, you really do not want to test the water, because the water is already boiling."

As you might expect, the official statement from UCLA plays up the improvements in lab safety put into place in the wake of the accident and points to the creation of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, which has been holding workshops and surveying lab workers on safety practices and attitudes.

I'm afraid, however, judging from the immediate reaction I've seen at my own institution, that we have a long way to go.

In particular, a number of science faculty (who are not chemists) seem to have been getting clear messages in the wake of "that UCLA prosecution" -- they didn't really know the details of the case, nor the names of the people involved -- that our university would not be backing them up legally in the event of any safety mishap in the lab or the field. Basically, the rumblings from the higher administrative strata were: No matter how well you've prepared yourself, your students, your employees, no matter how many safety measures you've put into place, no matter what limitations you're working with as far as equipment or facilities, if something goes wrong, it's your ass on the line.

This does not strike me as a productive way to approach safe working conditions as a collective responsibility within an educational institution. I also suspect it's not a stance that would hold up in court, but since it would probably take another lab tragedy and prosecution to undermine it, I'm hopeful that some sense of institutional ethics will well up and result in a more productive approach.

The most charitable explanation I can come up with is that the higher administrative strata intended to communicate that science faculty have a positive duty to ensure safe working conditions for their students and employees (and themselves). That means that science faculty need to be proactive in assessing their research settings (whether for laboratory or field research) for potential hazards, in educating themselves and those they work with about those hazards, in having workable plans to mitigate the hazards and to respond swiftly and effectively to mishaps. All of that is sensible enough.

However, none of that means that the institution is free of responsibility. Departments, colleges, and university administrators control resources that can make the difference between a pretty safe research environment and a terribly risky one. Institutions, not individual faculty, create and maintain occupational health programs. Institutions can marshal shared resources (including safety training programs and institutional safety officers) that individual faculty cannot.

Moreover, institutions set the institutional tone -- the more or less official sense of what is prioritized, of what is valued. If the strongest message about safety that reaches faculty boils down to legal liability and who will ultimately be legally liable, I'm pretty sure the institution still has a great deal of work to do in establishing a real culture of safety.


Related posts:

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

Crime, punishment, and the way forward: in the wake of Sheri Sangji’s death, what should happen to Patrick Harran?

Facing felony charges in lab death of Sheri Sangji, UCLA settles, Harran stretches credulity.

Why does lab safety look different to chemists in academia and chemists in industry?

Community responsibility for a safety culture in academic chemistry.

Are safe working conditions too expensive for knowledge-builders?