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When Will They Ever Learn?

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"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", the heartbreaking anthem of the 1960s antiwar movement, has a plaintive refrain that repeatedly asks, “When will they ever learn?” Pete Seeger’s dirge laments the needless waste of young lives in warfare. The question, however, applies to other needless young deaths that result from the blindness, carelessness, or arrogance of powerful elders -- including fatalities that take place at American academic research facilities.

These thoughts arise in part because this week marks the second anniversary of the citations and fines levied by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health against the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) for “serious” safety violations in the January 2009 death by fire of 23-year-old technician Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji. One year after the fire, in January 2010, graduate student Preston Brown, 29, was critically injured in an explosion in the lab of Louisa J. Hope-Weeks at Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock.

If someone not wearing a seatbelt is thrown from a car during a crash, we no longer consider the resulting injuries or death accidental, but rather the predictable result of failing to take known and accepted precautions.

Then, just weeks ago, Yale University senior Michele Dufault, 22, died when her hair became entangled in a lathe she was using in the university’s Sterling Chemical Laboratory.

An avalanche of media reports and statements by university officials followed each event. Yale Vice President Linda Koch Lorimer, for example, termed Dufault’s death a "terrible accident." Others called it a “tragic” or “freak accident.”

Distorting reality

Two years ago, safety experts taught me that using the term “accident" for a foreseeable outcome of unsafe practices distorts reality and dissipates responsibility. If someone not wearing a seatbelt is thrown from a car during a crash, we no longer consider the resulting injuries or death accidental, but rather the predictable result of failing to take known and accepted precautions.

This appears to hold for all three of these events. In each, the victim was doing something potentially dangerous without following the basic rules for doing it safely. In each, the academic institution appears to have tolerated a potentially lethal disregard for basic practices.

The circumstances leading to Dufault’s death are under investigation, but media reports suggest that the standout physics student, just weeks from graduation and under pressure to finish a major project, worked in a machine shop in the middle of the night, apparently alone. The presence of another person, experts say, is essential to safe use of industrial equipment. Whatever steps Michele took to tie up her long hair obviously were ineffective.

Sangji lacked both the protective apparel and the training to handle the highly dangerous substance that burst into fatal flames. Preston Brown, as Chemical & Engineering News has reported, disregarded many safety rules while his supervisor, Hope-Weeks, reportedly “assumed” that students were following her instructions.

The investigations of the UCLA and TTU incidents indicate that the institutions tolerated both lax safety and safety-training standards and disregarded their leadership’s responsibility to insist on the proven practices that could have prevented such foreseeable catastrophes. Safety experts tell me that in their opinions, the investigation of the Yale incident is also likely to fault a toleration of unsafe conditions, such as permitting students to operate power equipment without another person available in case of emergency. (At some universities, working on power equipment alone or during off hours is reportedly not only forbidden but literally impossible, because the power is cut when a supervisor is not present.)

In industry, when ignoring the rules results in serious injury or death people lose their jobs and even sometimes go to prison. In industry, jobs are lost for failing to comply with safety rules, even in the absence of an incident. But in academe, principal investigators (PIs), department heads, and deans who are responsible -- ostensibly -- for facilities where students or workers have been maimed or even killed keep their positions, perks, tenure, salaries, and grants, and sometimes even get awards from scientific societies. “Responsible” means “subject to penalty or blame in case of default,” my dictionary says. Their responsibility is only ostensible.

Lack of enforcement

It's well known that real responsibility -- the threat of real career damage or more serious consequences -- is central to running safe facilities. “The ultimate responsibility for creating a safe environment and for encouraging a culture of safety rests with the head of the organization and its operating units. … Even a well-conceived safety program will be treated casually by workers if it is neglected by top management,” states the newly updated version of the National Research Council’s classic safety guide, Prudent Practices in the Laboratory.

But at many universities, “There seems to a lack of overarching authority to enforce [safety practices] with the PIs,” Cheryl McKenzie, lead investigator of the TTU incident for the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB), tells Science Careers in an interview. TTU marks the first time that CSB has investigated a safety incident in an academic lab. After their report is issued, CSB intends to take a systematic look at the issues involved in lab safety on campuses. Emphasizing that her current observations are only “preliminary,” McKenzie says that specifics of the TTU case have raised “widely applicable” issues “that need to be explored.”

In addition to the issue of authority, “we’re exploring the issue of grant funding,” she says. “Grants have a lot of stipulations of ethical issues, animal treatment,” and more, she notes, but generally none concerning the safety of the people doing the research. Many experts believe that funding agencies can exert major leverage. Already, the Department of Homeland Security, the funder of the project Brown was working on, has tightened safety requirements for similar projects. Neither the National Science Foundation nor the National Institutes of Health, however, includes the safety of scientific workers among their grant criteria (although reviewers of some NIH applications are encouraged to assess potential hazards and proposed safety measures).

Neal Langerman, a consultant to the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Chemical Safety and an officer of its Division of Chemical Health and Safety, believes that adequate safety standards eventually will become widespread on American campuses and that once they do, Sheri Sangji’s death will be recognized as a major “turning point.” Already, some universities and other organizations have undertaken serious work on scientific safety.

“The safety of our students is a paramount concern,” Yale President Richard Levin said in a statement about Dufault. But my Webster’s indicates that “paramount” means “ranking higher than any other, … chief, supreme” and thus cannot be preceded by “a.” Only when universities and the faculty members who work for them give top priority to protecting the young lives entrusted to them -- and when funding agencies require that they do nothing less -- will the lesson of these needless calamities be truly learned.