Institutions make great efforts to ensure that their research labs are safe for students and staff, because it is the right thing to. Even then, accidents can happen that puts those working in these labs in harm’s way. A recent LA Times report highlights what can go wrong, for all involved.
According to the report, in 2008, a 23 year old recent graduate who went to work in a University lab as a staff research assistant was fatally burned in a lab accident at UCLA. The student was handling a syringe containing tert-Butyllithium, which can ignite spontaneously in air. She died of injuries she suffered 18 days after the accident. It was alleged that the research assistant was relatively inexperienced, had been provided little training and was not wearing a protective lab coat.
Felony charges were brought against both the University and the faculty member for whom she worked in what is believed to be the first time criminal charges have been filed in a fatal university lab accident. In 2012, three felony counts were dropped against the University after it agreed to new safety measures and funded a $500,000 scholarship in the research assistant’s name.
Criminal charges lingered against the faculty member. He faced four felony counts and up to 4 ½ years in prison. Just about two weeks ago, a plea bargain was also reached in connection with the charges against the faculty member. Under the plea, the criminal charges will be dropped in five years and he will avoid a prison term, provided he develops and teaches an organic chemistry course for college-bound inner-city students for five summers, completes 800 hours of non-teaching community service in the UCLA Hospital System, and pays $10,000 to a designated burn center in lieu of restitution.
This case should serve as one more stark reminder to institutions and faculty, individually, of the risks associated with not ensuring lab safety for those in their charge.