From the web
Re: Charges dropped against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran for death of Sheri Sangji after lab fire
Readers commented online on lab safety.
The professor is not responsible at all. I did work on tert-butyl lithium, but I did it in the hood and used safety glass[es], hand gloves, and the lab coat. The lab coat is mandatory to work in the laboratory.
Under any circumstances, the professor is not responsible. The graduate [student] should know the safety of the chemicals.
My prayers and thoughts are with the family.
Dr. Somanath Dev
Editor’s note: Sheri Sangji, whose death after a lab fire led to the charges against Harran, was not a graduate student. She was a staff researcher who had graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry seven months before the fire.
Her professor was her supervisor. He was directly responsible for overseeing any safety violation. Saying a graduate student should know better is just a way of avoiding responsibility. You cannot survive with this attitude in a corporate world.
I wouldn’t necessarily want to throw the student or the PI under the bus without knowing the culture of the lab where it happened. My first adviser in graduate [school] (in an organic synthesis lab) would have laughed if I’d asked him to provide a lab coat for me. He kept the gloves in his office and would hand me five pairs at the start of the week and tell me to “make them last” and if I wanted more than that, I had to buy them myself (which I did, especially in light of the fact that I was working with mercury salts). He and I argued more than once because he didn’t like me stepping out of lab for about 20 minutes to eat my lunch in the lobby (he wanted me to sit at my desk in the research lab, something I refused to do).
I’ve seen other advisers who may “encourage” safe working conditions but at the same time work their students to exhaustion, and students make mistakes after nonstop 14-plus-hour days, seven days a week. I think that’s another issue that needs to be addressed for graduate students as a whole, as it’s more common than you might think. (I’ve seen plenty of top-quality Ph.D.s from students who work more manageable 10-hours-a-day, six-day weeks—bad things start happening to you when you regularly put in more than 60 or 65 hours a week.)
On the other hand, if the PI provides appropriate safety equipment, makes sure that the students know the hazards for dangerous reagents and have been properly trained in how to handle them, and generally promotes a safe lab culture [and] student responsibility, then you can certainly start passing the blame if a student doesn’t follow things. Unfortunately, all too often I see it at my own university where safety takes a back seat to productivity.
By the way, I now work as my department’s safety officer, and I’ve discussed these issues with both PIs and students, sometimes until I’m blue in the face—although there’s only so much I can say and do. Fortunately, most PIs want their students to be safe and do everything they can (short of babysitting the lab). Most of our labs that work with pyrophorics or other stuff like that are incredibly careful in their handling protocols.
Ultimately, though, when you are in charge of a lab, “the buck stops here.”
Safety is everyone’s responsibility. I disagree with those who say the professor or principal investigator has no responsibility. I cannot recall ever seeing a university or departmental policy or session that adequately described the appropriate procedures to handle hazardous substances like t-BuLi. When a task like that is to be performed, it is up to the professor to make sure it is done safely, either through personal instruction or by assigning a more experienced team member to coach and supervise. Nothing is more important. General safety procedures like wearing a lab coat, using an explosion shield, wearing safety glasses and other protective equipment can be handled at the department level, but it is up to the professor to make sure they are followed and to provide more detailed instruction for specific hazardous substances, either personally or through proxy of a more experienced team member.
In my view, this and other incidents continue to happen because chemical and laboratory safety education is missing from the undergraduate curriculum. Presently, undergraduate students receive minimal safety training that does not prepare them for future work. This is not education—education provides knowledge and understanding of hazards and ways to minimize risks of hazards. It teaches one to critically think about safety and make decisions about laboratory work. Students and graduates need to be educated in chemical safety so they recognize (and understand) hazards, assess risks of hazards, minimize risks of hazards, and prepare for emergencies (RAMP). This lacking is a systemic problem in the academic chemistry community. Incidents such as this tragic one will continue until chemical and laboratory safety education is included in all academic curricula for scientists.