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Lab Safety

Podcast: The complicated world of grad students, lab injuries, and workers’ compensation

Stereo Chemistry takes listeners behind the scenes of a recent cover story related to lab safety

by Kerri Jansen
November 17, 2020

 

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Credit: C&EN

Many grad students may be surprised to learn their university’s policies for reimbursing medical fees for lab injuries do not cover grad students, or cover grad students only under certain circumstances. And it can be hard to get clarity on what is and is not covered. That’s left some grad students in an uncomfortable limbo of seeking answers after they’ve already racked up thousands of dollars in bills for an injury in the lab. In the latest episode of Stereo Chemistry, we uncover the source of this confusion and ask what—if anything—grad students can do about it.

Read C&EN’s cover story, Who pays when a graduate student gets hurt?

Sign up for the Grad Student Survival Guide at cenm.ag/gradsurvivalguide.

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.

Shiva Dastjerdi: So I basically took the flask off my hot plate, I was about to walk towards that machine, the rotovap machine. I think there was something oily—not exactly oil, I’m not sure what was on the floor—I slipped a bit, and my hand basically jerked. And around 2–3 mL of the acid hit my skin on the chest.

Kerri Jansen: On a November day in 2018, Shiva Dastjerdi was working in her PI’s lab at Boston University when she slipped and splashed a small amount of acid on her skin. Shiva was wearing goggles, gloves, and a lab coat, but like a lot of lab coats it was open at the neck, leaving her skin exposed. She shared this story with C&EN reporter Sam Lemonick in several interviews earlier this year.

Shiva Dastjerdi: I think the first millisecond I was like, “Oh, it’s fine, I’ll just go wash it.” And then I felt the burn like maybe a second after.

Kerri: The acid left burns across Shiva’s upper chest. But we’re not here to talk about a lab accident. We’re here to talk about what happened after.

Sam Lemonick: So Shiva went to the hospital.

Kerri: That’s reporter Sam Lemonick.

Sam: And that was an ordeal, in and of itself, but what happened after was she ended up in this very strange, murky, complicated territory of, are graduate students eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they get injured in lab accidents?

Kerri: Are they?

I’m Kerri Jansen, and you’re listening to Stereo Chemistry. In early November, C&EN published a cover story about who pays when a graduate student gets hurt. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’re taking you behind the scenes of that investigation. In this episode, you’ll hear from Sam, who reported the story, and Jyllian Kemsley, an executive editor at C&EN who oversees everything we do related to lab safety.

Welcome, Sam and Jyllian, to Stereo Chemistry.

Sam: Thanks, Kerri.

Jyllian Kemsley: Thanks, Kerri.

Kerri: And now, Sam, you’ve recently reported a story about graduate students and their kind of unique position when it comes to universities’ policies around compensation for work-related injuries. To kick things off, can you tell us how you got interested in the subject?

Sam: Sure, yeah. So in February, Jyllian got an email from a graduate student who had read some of C&EN’s previous coverage about lab safety. And she had a story that she thought we might like to know about.

Kerri: And that was Shiva Dastjerdi.

Sam: That’s right, yeah. Shiva is a graduate student at Boston University in the Chemistry Department. Her accident happened in 2018. Jyllian got in touch with me and asked me if I was interested in writing the story. And I took it from there.

Kerri: And so, Jyllian, you’re kind of our lab-safety guru here at C&EN. How are you seeing this story fit into sort of the broader lab-safety landscape?

Jyllian: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to pursue the story was because it’s not a new issue, and it’s not the first time that C&EN has covered it. We have a story by Beth Halford in 2004 about questions around, if graduate students get injured in the lab, are they covered by workers’ compensation, if they need medical treatment or if they are permanently disabled or lose work time. And it’s something I’ve wanted to follow up on for a while, and when Shiva contacted us, it seemed like a good opportunity to finally pursue that story, and I’m glad Sam was willing to take it up.

Kerri: What were the initial questions that you were trying to answer?

Sam: Yeah, so the very first thing, of course, was to talk to Shiva. Shiva remained the focus of the story, but we wanted to make sure that we were getting a broader view of the landscape and the experience of graduate students across the country. So we identified about a dozen—more than a dozen—schools that were spread out across the US, different states. And we tried to find both public and private universities in different states to try to capture the influence of state laws and also of the different environments of public and private schools. And then I started making calls. We decided at first that I would reach out to both the heads of the chemistry departments at those schools and also to officials in environmental health and safety offices or the equivalent office at that university, because those are the people, EH&S officials, who are generally responsible for lab accidents in terms of setting safety policy and dealing with accidents when they happen.

Kerri: OK, so at this point you’re looking to find out, what are these universities’ policies in the case that a grad student is injured, what is the policy for compensation, is that right?

Sam: Yeah, exactly. And it became clear pretty quickly that we weren’t talking to exactly the right people. And in a way that helped to clarify the story for me, because the people who we’re talking to are clearly authority figures. If you’re a graduate student and you’re thinking about who’s in charge, especially in terms of lab safety, you’re probably thinking of your PI, the head of your department, and whoever you know in the EH&S office. But while those people know a lot about lab safety, in a day-to-day sense, they don’t necessarily know a lot about legal policy when it comes to workers’ compensation benefits, if someone is injured in a lab accident.

Kerri: In your story, you referred to the area of workers’ compensation policies as a “complex, irregular landscape.” What did you mean by that?

Sam: Workers’ compensation laws, in the US, there are at least 50 different sets of workers’ compensation laws, and I guess another set for federal employees. Each state has its own policies about who is considered an employee for the purposes of workers’ compensation and what benefits exactly they would get if they were injured in an accident. And then on top of that, of course, you have the very complex situation of graduate student employment. And that also varies from university to university and from state to state.

Kerri: And why the focus on grad students here, as opposed to any of the other individuals who may be working in a university lab?

Jyllian: We focused on graduate students specifically because, so if you look at some of the other people who might be employed in a laboratory—like a laboratory manager or some sort of technician—there’s no question, really, that they are employees of the university. And then undergraduate students, say, taking a lab for a class, a teaching lab—they’re very clearly students in that lab. But when you have graduate students working in a research laboratory, that’s where the problem comes in. Because most graduate students, if you ask them, you know, they will say, “I work for my adviser, I get a paycheck, I’m an employee.” But the distinction that universities seem to be making is that if you are working on research for your dissertation—you are getting a stipend, not a salary—then you are primarily a student, not an employee, and therefore not eligible for workers’ compensation.

The difficulty there is that, you know, most graduate students I know—and Sam followed up with some chemistry department chairs on this—they don’t see a distinction between working on research for their adviser and working on research for their dissertation. The two things are the same. So it seems like the administrators are making a distinction that doesn’t really match how graduate students—and possibly faculty—really see things happening on the ground in the laboratories.

I think it’s worth noting that this is probably a bigger issue in the United States than it is in other countries, because we don’t have universal health care. And so people do pay, depending on their insurance plan, a significant portion of their medical bills. So these are out-of-pocket costs that I think students in a lot of other countries don’t have.

It’s also worth noting, I think, that postdocs are also in a bit of a gray area where they may or may not be considered employees, depending on how they’re funded.

Kerri: So coming back to Shiva’s story—what happened after she went to the emergency room?

Sam: For Shiva, it was really confusing and frustrating. She got back from the hospital. And she had this burn on her chest that quickly turned into scar tissue that was red and painful and itchy and uncomfortable. And she’d gotten the advice from—actually from her adviser; while she was in the ER he was Googling to try to find out what you do to treat an acid burn—and he had spoken with somebody at a local burn center and they said “she should call us and make an appointment with one of our specialists and we can follow up on that.” So Shiva did that, and she got the advice to get a series of laser treatments that would help to heal the scar tissue. The doctor told her she could get maybe 5 or 7 of these treatments to try to heal the scar. And so Shiva made those appointments and started going to these treatments, not realizing that BU wasn’t going to pay these bills for her. So within a couple months, Shiva was getting notices from her health insurance saying that she had unpaid bills, both from her emergency care on the day of the accident and for these scar treatments that she’d had subsequently. And she didn’t know what to do with those.

Shiva was the kind of grad student who assumed that she was an employee of the university. She got a paycheck, and the university filed a W-2 federal tax form for her. Those are, you know, those are things that I as an employee am familiar with. And Shiva says that when she spoke to her colleagues, to other graduate students in her lab, they assumed as much as well. They told her, “The university will pick up your medical bills because you work for them.”

Shiva Dastjerdi: Someone, I don’t even remember who, like one of my colleagues, told me that, “Oh, it happened at work, so BU definitely have to cover it.” So I wasn’t worried at all. Until I got another bill and another bill that, your bill is due, it’s past due. So I realized, OK, they’re not paying, and they haven’t paid.

Sam: She didn’t know what she was supposed to do with these notices about bills that were starting to total hundreds and then eventually thousands of dollars. So what she did was she went to the person in her Chemistry Department who is in charge of operations, a man named Paul Ferrari. Paul told her to bring the bills to him and he would figure things out for her. He would get these bills taken care of. But when Paul, and Shiva as well, started talking to other people in the BU administration, to people in the Risk Management Department—which is the department at universities that handles insurance issues, that ultimately handles workers’ compensation issues—they didn’t seem to be on the same page either about whether or not Shiva was eligible for workers’ compensation.

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So everywhere that Shiva turned to try to figure out who is going to pay these bills, you know, was she going to be dealing with this debt, was she going to have a bad mark on her credit score, she could not get a straight answer or even any kind of guidance, really, about what she should do.

Shiva Dastjerdi: It just took a lot of my time. I didn’t even let anyone notice that some days I was behind my schedule. So I tried to work extra hours on weekends or whatever to catch up for that.

Kerri: Shiva is not the only grad student to find themselves in this position. We’ll continue this story after a short break.

Dorea Reeser: Hello, Dorea Reeser here! I’m C&EN’s senior audience engagement editor. We know that grad school can be challenging. That’s why we’ve teamed up with grad students around the world to offer the “Grad Student Survival Guide.” An 8-week email series full of inspiring and relatable stories.

This series is personal for me. My experience in grad school was about so much more than research. It challenged me to discover who I am and helped me develop valuable life skills. And that’s partly what the “Grad Student Survival Guide” is all about. This guide will help you build stronger interpersonal relationships, improve how you communicate your science, manage self-doubt, embrace who you are, and so much more.

Every Thursday, we’ll send you a short, easy-to-read guide written by one of your peers, who have found ways to thrive in grad school. Give us 8 weeks, and we’ll give you some tools to succeed. So take a few seconds now to sign up at cenm.ag/gradsurvivalguide. Again you can sign up for the Grad Student Survival Guide at cenm.ag/gradsurvivalguide. We’ll also include that link in this episode’s description. And now, back to the show.

Kerri: So the story we’ve been hearing, Shiva’s injury and her struggles to get clarity on whether she was eligible for workers’ comp—this happened at one institution, Boston University, but I think it illustrates what you found, Sam, to be actually a much more widespread issue.

Sam: Yeah, we chose to focus on Shiva’s story in particular, but you know, I was able to talk to graduate students at other places—one at New York University, and another one at the University of California, Berkeley. And it seems like these incidents—although fortunately serious lab accidents don’t happen all that often—it seems like this situation that Shiva found herself in is not a rare one. There was a woman who was injured in an accident at Berkeley and had a very similar experience; she likewise assumed that she was eligible for workers’ compensation, and after she received medical treatment and tried to get those bills reimbursed, she found out that she was not considered an employee and that she wasn’t eligible to have those bills reimbursed.

Kerri: And that’s really a bad time to be finding that out, when you’re already in a difficult situation.

Sam: Yeah. No kidding.

Kerri: So now we know that there is a lot of education and communication around avoiding safety issues in the lab, avoiding lab accidents. And, you know, even what steps to take immediately after an accident. Why this lack of clarity around the compensation side, what to do afterwards, you know, if there should be a lab accident?

Jyllian: That’s a really good question. Sam may have some different thoughts on this, but from what I’ve gathered over the years covering lab safety and from Sam’s reporting, is that people just aren’t thinking through the next step of what happens after someone gets seriously injured. There are the protocols to tell the safety office or call an ambulance or whatever. But that longer term who pays the bills, people seem to just have not thought about.

Sam: Yeah, I think that’s really true. I think that it turns out that graduate students and even professors and officials who work in EH&S haven’t thought about this question that much, about what happens after an accident, who pays the bills.

Jyllian: And frankly, even the people who manage workers’ comp, whether it’s HR or the risk management office or whoever, they don’t seem to have really thought it through, either. And again, there seems to be this disconnect between how those administrators see it—are you working for a faculty member, or are you working on your dissertation?—making a distinction that on the other side, graduate students and faculty don’t see a distinction the same way.

And maybe the answer lies in the different people who handle the different aspects of it. So the people who are in the labs and most directly interacting with the students, or anyone else who works in the lab, are the ones responsible for that prevention and emergency response component that does get a reasonable amount of attention in terms of writing standard operating procedures for activities, or who do you call when an accident happens, whether it’s a spill or someone is injured or whatever. But the financial stuff is handled by administrators who, for the most part, I think, don’t interact with the students very often, certainly not on probably a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis.

Sam: I won’t speculate about motivations, but it’s clear that universities deal with this question different ways in different situations. Universities sometimes pay workers’ compensation after lab accidents, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they find other ways to pay for medical bills. I don’t know why that happens. But it seems that they see some benefit in not taking a clear stand on whether or not graduate students are employees for the purposes of workers’ compensation.

Kerri: Sam, can you tell me more about your reporting process? Because I know you faced some obstacles along the way.

Sam: I think less than half of the people that I reached out to agreed to an interview. It is not easy to get universities to go on the record answering a question like “Are graduate students injured in lab accidents eligible for workers’ compensation?”

Jyllian: Yeah, I don’t think you, did you ever get a direct answer on that? Or was it always “it depends” or “I don’t know” or . . .

Sam: I guess it probably depends on what your definition of a direct answer is, but I never got a satisfactory answer.

Kerri: And, Sam, how did Shiva’s story end? What ended up happening for her?

Sam: Ultimately, the university did help her to pay for some of her medical bills, but it took a couple years and getting a lawyer involved to even get that much out of them.

When I first talked to Shiva, her lawyer had recently had a conversation with a BU official and BU had agreed to pay her outstanding bills, which were for three of those laser scar treatments. It wasn’t until the summer—so, about halfway through the reporting process—that BU actually paid, although Shiva says that her insurance company says she still owes about $350.The other bills—her emergency room bills and her ambulance bills—it was her Chemistry Department director of operations, Paul Ferrari, who paid those bills for her after getting a lot of confusing answers from the university about whether or not Shiva was eligible for workers’ compensation. Ferrari actually just used a Chemistry Department discretionary account to pay for several hundred dollars of medical bills.

Jyllian: It also influenced her medical decisions going forward. She did not have all of the treatments that were medically recommended to her by the burn specialist, because even though she and her attorney were able to get BU to pay her bills, she was worried that if she incurred more, they would be her responsibility. So she did not get the treatment that her doctors recommended for her.

And I’ll note Shiva’s medical bills were probably on the low side because she didn’t get much emergency treatment. I think about some of the other cases that we have covered. So at the University of Hawaii, for example—this was a postdoc—she lost one of her arms because of an explosion. I don’t know what her long-term outlook is, but that’s a pretty significant consequence of an incident that happened in the lab. So there are definitely situations where people could wind up with far more extensive medical bills than Shiva did or be permanently disabled.

Kerri: So what is left, then, for a grad student to do? If someone’s listening to this right now and wondering, am I covered? How do I make sure that I am covered? What can they do?

Sam: Certainly, the first thing they could do is ask. It was hard for me to get a straight answer, but there’s no harm in asking. Ask your adviser, ask the department head, you know, go higher up the chain to risk management, try to see if you can get a straight answer.

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Jyllian: I think that’s the real take-home for graduate students here, is that it’s kind of on them, unfortunately, to try to push their department or school officials to provide answers to this—ideally before someone gets injured.

Kerri: Yeah, and get it in writing.

Jyllian: And possibly where graduate students might have the most influence is when they’ve been admitted but haven’t decided what school they’re going to yet—that more recruiting part of the process, where schools are actively trying to get the best students. And if the best students say, “I want to know whether I’m going to be eligible for workers’ compensation here”—you know, if you think about power dynamics at the university level, that’s probably the time at which graduate students have the most power, is when schools want them, but they haven’t committed yet.

Aside from graduate students asking proactively whether or not they’d be covered by workers’ compensation if they’re injured, the one consistent thing I think that Sam heard in his reporting from legal experts was that if you are injured, apply for workers’ comp and do it quickly. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. So even if you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, file the claim anyway, before too much time elapses.

Sam: Yeah, that’s a really good point. Even if a university told a graduate student that they weren’t eligible for workers’ compensation, it’s ultimately not up to universities or their insurers to decide who gets workers’ compensation or not. So if you were a graduate student, and you filed a claim after an injury, and that claim was denied, you could take that denial to a state court and ask them to decide whether or not that was an appropriate denial.

Graduate students have had some success over the last couple decades forming unions. And unions do have some power in getting benefits like workers’ compensation benefits written into contracts that would be enforceable in some way.

I think that, you know, in Shiva’s case, she didn’t know before the accident, but after the accident, she tried to do everything that she could to get the benefits that she thought that she as a worker deserved. All the way up to the point of getting a lawyer and then to reaching out to Chemical & Engineering News. She knows that what happened to her could happen to other students, and she wants graduate students to be aware of the sort of tenuous position that they’re in.

You know, there are a few things that graduate students can do, but right now I think that change is going to have to come in the bigger picture, somehow. I mean, each individual graduate student asking might help them figure out their own situation, but I think it’s going to take a lot of graduate students asking to get this issue on the radar and maybe make something change.

Kerri: Now, C&EN was able to do this investigation because someone reached out with their story. So I wanted to ask—if there are other people out there who have a story they want to share, that they think is important, that they think isn’t getting enough attention, you know. What thoughts do you have for them?

Jyllian: Tell us.

Sam: Email me.

Jyllian: Reach out to anyone affiliated with C&EN; we do talk to each other.

Sam: Yeah. This story took me the better part of a year to report, and there were many frustrating moments along the way. And if you have a story that you’d like us to hear about, I would love to do it again.

Kerri: Well thanks to both of you for helping to shed some light on the subject. And thanks for sharing the story with Stereo Chemistry.

Sam: You’re welcome.

Jyllian: Thank you very much, Kerri.

Kerri: If you have a story to share, or even an idea for a future episode of Stereo Chemistry, you can email us at cen_multimedia@acs.org. And direct contact information for all of C&EN’s reporters is available on our website, cen.acs.org. We’d love to hear from you.

This episode was produced by me, Kerri Jansen. It was edited by Sam Lemonick, Jyllian Kemsley, and Amanda Yarnell. The music in this episode was “Curiosity” by Kevin Graham and “Plain Loafer” by Kevin MacLeod.

Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.

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