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Lab Safety

After C&EN’s investigation into who pays when graduate students get hurt, Boston University takes action

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
May 15, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 18


I love it when good, unexpected things happen. It is very satisfying when the ripples of your actions are greater than you thought they would be.

At the end of 2020, C&EN reporter Sam Lemonick wrote an investigative piece telling the story of Shiva Dastjerdi, a chemistry PhD student at Boston University. Back in 2018, while doing research in the lab for her dissertation, she received a chemical burn on her upper chest.

At the time of the accident, she fully expected that as an employee at the university, the institution would cover her hospital bills; after all, the incident happened while she was working.

The problem with Dastjerdi’s assumption is that in the US, universities may classify students as employees for some purposes, like paying federal taxes, but not for others, including paying for medical bills related to work injuries. Ultimately, she resorted to hiring a lawyer to getthe university to pay her medical bills.

The answer to the question that the story raises—Who pays when a graduate student gets hurt?—is certainly far from clear in the US. But the US is not alone in grappling with this problem. Last month, we published an analysis by freelance writer Benjamin Plackett that focused on how universities in the UK and France support students injured in the lab.

Overall, faculty and university administrators in those countries seemed confident that injured students are better cared for in Europe. Students don’t have to pay medical bills after a lab injury because national medical services in the UK and France offer free coverage at the point of service. But just like in the US, there are areas, such as when it comes to sick pay, that are not clear cut. And benefits available to students can vary according to the institution’s insurance policies or the status of the student. In addition, some institutions’ administrators may choose to financially support injured students on a discretionary basis.

The reason I’m resurfacing these articles now is that Lemonick’s reporting has had real-world impact beyond his and the C&EN team’s expectations. It has changed the circumstances of PhD students at Boston University, which was at the center of the story.

We hoped that our investigation would prompt institutions to review their processes and policies to at least determine how they would react if a situation such as Dastjerdi’s were to occur at their schools.

We hoped that our story would prompt students to go to their departments and learn about what kind of coverage and policies they could rely on should they be involved in an accident in a research lab.

It was, however, too much to hope that institutions would improve their policies if they fell short. So we were pleasantly surprised to hear that Boston University has taken steps to resolve the issue that was at the heart of the story.

Daniel Kleinman, the associate provost for graduate affairs, is leading a pilot program for Boston University grad students with the assistance of representatives from various campus offices. The program “may cover up to $2,500 for out-of-pocket expenses or copays associated with” a laboratory injury, according to a university website. The school adds that “reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses is available regardless of fault, and does not constitute an admission of liability by Boston University.”

This initiative by Boston University is certainly an important step forward in guaranteeing protection for grad students. We call upon other schools around the country to follow suit.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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