In what is being viewed as a surprising move, felony charges were leveled against a UCLA professor and members of the UC administration as part of an investigation into the 2008 death of Sheharbano Sangji. The research assistant died after a lab accident left her with 2nd and 3rd degree burns over much of her body.
While a tragic accident, investigation found that several safety precautions were not taken that may have mitigated the damage. Not only were some of the experimental procedures in conflict with recommendations for handling the dangerous chemicals Sangji was working with, she was also not wearing a lab coat or eye protection. The legal action is largely being spurred by the fact that UCLA safety inspectors noted over a dozen safety infractions, including lack of personal protective clothing, only two months prior to the accident. Despite the warnings, no action was taken by the lab to correct the issues.
Obviously the level of risk is going to vary substantially from one lab to the next. A chemistry lab might be expected to contain more dangerous chemicals than an ecology lab, for instance. However, that doesn't mean that there should be variable levels of attention paid to safety. But the issue is always enforcement. Where does it come from? Who is ultimately responsible.
This was an active discussion on twitter (yes, I'm selling out that fast) this morning with @biochembelle, @Chemjobber and @piperjklemm. Chemjobber has already posted on the specifics of the case, but I am interested in discussing how we avoid this kind of failure in the lab.
Everyone has a story about their safety office indicating that they are either too militant or don't know their asses from their clipboards. Hell, I've even written about this topic. Yes, there may be cases when they dispense less than wise information, but when it comes to violations of the safety rules at your institution, PIs do so at their own risk. The UCLA case is making this point loud and clear.
As a PI I can attest that I will absolutely not catch every safety violation in my own lab. Why? because I spend more time in my office than in my lab, but at least two orders of magnitude and I haven't yet set up the webcam in there *puts on ToDo list*. So what can I do to make sure no one is mouth pipetting phenol at the bench with no pants on? Make it clear that I value safety by the following:
1) Assign one lab member (I don't have a tech) to stay on top of MSDSs, SOPs and waste, then check in with this person at lab meetings.
2) Point out any safety issues I do see when in the lab and bring it up at lab meeting.
3) Hold a meeting after our annual Safety and Risk seminar to make sure we are all on the same page and to discuss and changes.
4) Listen to anyone who has a concern. Ignoring a valid concern voiced by any lab member sends the message that you are not serious about lab safety or don't care about the safety of certain members.
5) Finally, the buck stops with the PI. As pointed out by @biochembelle, lateral or bottom up enforcement of safety rules is rarely effective. If you want you lab to take it seriously, the PI has to be the lab enforcer of safety. A senior lab member can be empowered to do this, but the PI needs to make it clear that it is important.
Or risk jail.