Few will forget the tragic circumstances around the death of young chemist Sheri Sangji, who died from injuries sustained while using t-butyl lithium in the laboratory of Professor Patrick Harran at UCLA. The amazing report of Jyllian Kemsley in C&E News is here. I wrote about it back then too.
This story took another turn when the Los Angeles district attorney’s office filed felony charges against both UCLA and Professor Harran. The LA Times report is here.
This obviously is a huge story in the chemistry blogosphere, with ChemBark, ChemJobber, the Chemistry Blog and of course In The Pipeline posting on the subject today. There are some very thoughtful opinions in that list.
I found myself nodding along with a lot of what has already been written. Criminal charges do seem extreme for a professor, but there is the pervading sense that academic safety is not taken very seriously. And this professor was the one who was unlucky enough to be the one that had the fatal accident in his lab. But let us not forgot that part, the most important: someone died in this incident, a young life taken away. If nothing else, it brings into sharp relief the importance of being safe in the lab and the culture of long hours and minimal oversight needs to end. Industry has much higher standards of safety because it will affect their business if they do not. And this in labs where there are often people there with 10 or more years of experience. The person in an academic lab with even 5 years is considered a grizzled veteran.
There is a danger of over-reaction. Of imposing such stringent safety measures that research becomes painfully slow. But there is certainly a balance that can be attained between getting work done and doing it safely and that is a balance that (if you’ll forgive the huge generalization) academic labs have yet to achieve.
Update: Some interesting thoughts from Curious Wavefunction on the culpability of the professor in this case and an excellent piece from Jyllian Kemsley, summarizing the situation, tackling some misperceptions and also including quite a blog roll of folks who have written about the subject this week.