Engineering | Safe Engineering

In the past decade university laboratories in the United States have documented nearly 120 explosions, fires, and chemical discharges. However it was not until late last year that the first criminal charges were filed over insufficient laboratory safety.

Discouraged safety experts point out the association between these two statistics.  The lack of interest by universities and their researchers in laboratory safety is a product of having no ramifications or consequences.

The president of the laboratory safety consulting firm for corporate and university settings, Advanced Chemical Safety Inc., Neal R. Langerman stated “The vast majority of the research institutions and faculty still do not get it.”

There are hopes that these attitudes may be changing as a result of a lab accident that grabbed national attention. In December, criminal charges were filed against the University of California at Los Angeles and a chemistry professor star there, Patrick G. Harran, following an incident resulting in the death of a 23 year-old student in Mr. Harran’s laboratory.

This student, Sheharbano Sanji, was significantly burned when a pyrophoric chemical, upon becoming exposed to oxygen, ignited in close contact to her while she was not outfitted with the proper PPE. Upon exposure to heat and flame her synthetic sweater caught fire and melted to her skin.

UCLA and Mr. Harran face the flowing charges: willful failure to provide employee-safety training, willful failure to correct unsafe conditions, and willful failure to ensure that employees wore appropriate protective equipment. Mr. Harran could face up to four and half years in prison, while UCLA faces fines up to $4.5 million, if convicted. Officials at the university have deemed the incident a tragedy and the charges as “outrageous” and unwarranted. Both parties have declined to comment and no pleas have yet been submitted for the case.

Safety experts are taking a close interest in this case because the parties believe the charges are unprecedented. This is seen as an apex and potential “tipping point” after decades of efforts attempting to engage universities in laboratory safety.

The president of the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI), a nonprofit provider of safety training in educational settings, James Kaufman said, “It’s no fun being first at certain things.” As a retired chemistry professor at Curry College, he articulated some sympathy for Mr. Harran, but he also was quoted saying, “There are certain things where somebody goes first and society changes.”

In this case there will be difficulty apportioning blame between Mr. Harran and the university. Evidence has arisen that the professor allegedly had knowingly neglected the danger that ended this student’s life. Whereas, the safety inspectors at the university documented inspecting the laboratory two months prior to the incident and notes were made that workers were not wearing lab coats, among other violations.

Mr. Kaufman points out that most institutions in the country stress the importance of laboratory safety, unlike UCLA. These institutions have offices and regulations governing safety, and UCLA lacked both. He went on to say that universities are different from industry because there is a lack of the typical day enforcement of compliance as well as making safety an essential aspect of the hiring, retention, and promotion processes.

There may be a serious shift in attitudes and cultures regarding laboratory safety in addition to the charges against Mr. Harran and UCLA. The independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), had planned to review the issues that arise in university labs after an incident involving a graduate student at Texas Tech University in January of 2010. This accident occurred when a chemical detonated which resulted in a perforated eye, burns to the hands and face, and three missing fingers.

The CSB documented fewer than 120 accidents at university laboratories since 2001 but the real number is believed to be much higher. In October of 2011, the CSB released a report discussing the Texas Tech incident. In the report was a series of needed recommendations as well as a call for the development of a comprehensive new laboratory safety approach by the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The ACS is working closely with Mr. Langerman to create a new safety-certification program that he expects to be completed by the end of next year. Hopefully it will become a foundational in laboratory curriculum for students and researchers alike at universities.

Complacency is the issue to confront by all major universities and associations. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), with the American Council on Education (ACE), have prepared and will offer an online seminar that portrays the UCLA case with campus safety officers and outside legal experts. This is definitely a sign that universities cannot continue to overlook lab safety and continue business as usual.

David J. Monz, an environmental lawyer who advises colleges and universities, said in a seminar by the Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association (CSHEMA) that the UCLA charges, “really sent a shock wave through the academic sector.”

If Mr. Harran and UCLA are not convicted the shock will be short-lived believes Mr. Langerman.  “Harran is a brilliant organic chemist,” said Langerman, when as a chemistry professor at Utah State University he had read many of Mr. Harran’s published articles. “I am truly in awe of what his people produce.”  He believes if Mr. Harran avoids conviction that his academic reputation will go unscathed.

In turn, universities around the country could conclude that there is no urgency in reforming laboratory safety, he said. “If all he gets is a slap on the wrist,” Mr. Langerman said, “it’s my opinion that the long-term impact will be very minimal.”

Prior to the UCLA incident, Texas Tech was among the majority of universities confident in its existing safety policies, Dominick J. Casadonte Jr., the chemistry professor at Texas Tech that was serving the department chairman when the student was maimed, believed the university was in the overwhelming population of institutions confident in its existing safety policies.

The student, Preston Brown, was without formal training in the use of explosive materials and was inexperienced with their use, as stated by the Chemical Safety Board’s report. The accident occurred because he mixed a larger concentration of the explosive material despite the limit set by the two principal investigators. The upper limit of material handling had not been fully explained to Preston. At the time of the explosion he also was not wearing safety glasses.

At that point in time Texas Tech University did have a sequence of safety policies as confirmed by Mr. Casadonte during the safety seminar for the business-officers association. He stated that each university student was required to partake in a course on research ethics and a safety course.  These modules had been computer-based since 2006. The department’s chemical-safety committee was said to be “ineffective in its scope,” by Mr. Casadonte. “It in fact rarely met during my time as department chair, and we sort of had the policy of, ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Even though no legal action resulted from the accident involving Mr. Brown, it was believed this started the cascade to lead to improving university safety. New safety policies at Texas Tech were created which includes safety information regarding tenure-and-promotion packages as well as in dissertations and theses.

Upon investigation by California’s workplace-safety agency (Cal/OSHA) in the UCLA case, the university was fined nearly $32,000.  This agency also recommended the possibility of criminal charges to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in December 2009.  Sister to Ms. Sanji and doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Naveen F. Sanji, has continually pressured prosecutors to pursue a criminal case. Two days before the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations, the district attorney filed the case.

Mr. Harran appeared in court last week asking for more time to formulate a plea bargain with his lawyer and prosecutors. This request was granted by Hon. Shelley B. Torrealba, and an arraignment date to submit pleas was set for June 7th.

Written by: Friederike Doerstling, Chemical Inventory Clerk

For more information regarding this article please refer to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The report discussing and suggesting recommendations for improving laboratory safety can be found through the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

If there are any concerns or questions regarding health and safety within a laboratory, please contact Jonathan Klane, Assistant Director – Safety Programs for Engineering, at 480-965-8498 or Jonathan.Klane@asu.edu.