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Crossing the Rubicon

CREDIT: Cjp24, Wikimedia Commons

On 27 July, the regents of the University of California (UC) took a step unprecedented in U.S. history, one that laboratory safety experts believe is likely to help raise the customarily lax safety standards that have prevailed until now in many academic labs across the country. In a 38-page settlement with the district attorney of Los Angeles County, the regents of the prestigious 10-campus institution agreed to “acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions” in the laboratory of chemistry professor Patrick Harran, where 23-year-old University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), research technician Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji suffered fatal burns in December 2008. She was manipulating, without proper training or protective equipment, a dangerous pyrophoric substance that ignites on contact with air. The regents further agreed that none of their “counsel, representatives, or executive employees … will make any public statement denying responsibility for [those] conditions.”

“The Rubicon has been crossed,” says Harry Elston, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, in an interview with Science Careers. “We’ve never seen the academy held to the same standard as industry, and now we have.” This change, he believes, will be “highly significant in the long run.” The settlement requires an academic institution, for the first time, to adopt the safety management model long prevalent in industry research, where lab safety is a well-recognized and legally imposed responsibility of leadership, enforced in organizations from the top down.

We’ve never seen the academy held to the same standard as industry, and now we have.

—Harry Elston

Universities have traditionally run on what a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board terms a “fiefdom system,” with principal investigators (PIs) who “in practice do pretty much whatever they want” and often view "laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom.” California's robust occupational safety law permitted the Los Angeles district attorney to bring criminal charges against UC and Harran; in exchange for the university’s acknowledgement and acceptance of several other conditions, the charges against UC were dismissed.

The California statute’s authority obviously does not extend to other states, but experts think the settlement will have a substantial national impact because it removes any moral, intellectual, or practical basis for believing that universities and PIs are entitled to provide their workers with a lower standard of safety than the standard that prevails in industry. The UC case can also serve as a model for similar prosecutions in other states with strong statutes. And it can serve as a template for what constitutes an acceptable safety system.

The settlement imposes stringent practical requirements on UC. These include the need to “maintain a comprehensive laboratory safety program” that meets specific, stipulated safety standards and is monitored by a court-appointed special master with the authority to impose fines of up to $500,000 on the university for noncompliance. Labs are subject to unannounced inspections by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), and UC must reimburse the agency up to $50,000 for its costs if an excessive number of inspections are needed.

Harran did not participate in the settlement. He continues to face criminal charges despite what the Los Angeles Times terms a “bizarre” effort by his attorneys to have them quashed.

Four years, 10 campuses

The agreement applies to “all laboratory facilities within any Department of Chemistry and/or Biochemistry” at all 10 UC campuses (but not within the 5 UC health systems) for the next 4 years. Under its detailed provisions, existing chiefs of all affected labs must complete training covering “the Principal Investigator’s responsibilities for laboratory safety,” as well as a “laboratory safety training program.” All “new or visiting” PIs must complete similar training before “operating any laboratory facility, or directing or supervising any employees within any laboratory facility.” All present and future lab personnel must complete training in both lab safety and their “rights and responsibilities relative to lab safety.” This training must begin within 60 days of the execution of the agreement.

Affected laboratories must develop, use, and display written standard operating procedures (SOPs) that comply with requirements of California law for the handling of more than 500 specified dangerous chemicals. PIs and everyone working with covered materials must sign the SOPs, which must be kept current with recommended standards of use.

Exacting requirements mandate the use of personal protective apparel and equipment. Long pants, closed shoes, and natural fiber clothing are required at all times. Appropriate lab coats, gloves, and eye protection provided by the university must be worn “while working on, or adjacent to” any hazardous material. Coats used while working with pyrophoric or flammable substances must be flame-retardant. Departments must provide—and document that they have provided—appropriately sized coats for each person and arrange to launder them on a regular schedule. “Employees shall not bear the cost of required PPE [personal protective equipment],” and each laboratory shall maintain records “verifying the date of issuance and type of PPE issued, or re-issued, to each laboratory personnel [sic].” Strict standards for detecting and reporting incidents and problems aim to ensure that they quickly receive official attention and remediation. The university and its labs must fully and promptly cooperate with Cal/OSHA’s unannounced inspections and pay Cal/OSHA’s expenses if more than a specified number of inspections are required.

In addition, UC will provide $500,000 in Sheri’s name for a UC Berkeley School of Law scholarship in environmental law, the field she intended to study.

No turning back

For Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, who for 3-and-a-half years has acted as both her family’s spokesperson and as an unrelenting advocate for the prosecution of UCLA and Harran, the settlement offers some satisfaction. “UCLA and the Regents have finally admitted that they wronged Sheri terribly—by accepting responsibility for their repeated, deliberate, unlawful behavior that [led] to the horrific death of a 23 year old girl. Our family's pain will not diminish, but our hope, of course, is that no one else has to suffer the way Sheri did, and that such tragedies are avoided in the future,” she told Science Careers by e-mail.

As for Harran, Naveen says, “from the outset we have asked for justice to be delivered in a fair and transparent process, and now we leave it up to the court, and a jury, to provide that justice,” she writes. The Sangji family has permitted the statute of limitations for bringing a civil suit to expire without taking action.

Harran’s next court appearance is set for September, when he is slated to face arraignment following numerous postponements. Despite the settlement and the university’s acceptance of responsibility, UCLA’s “engagement” in the case “is far from over,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in a statement. “UCLA and the regents will continue our unwavering support for Professor Harran. … We will continue to fully provide for his defense.” The day before the settlement was announced, Harran’s UCLA-provided attorneys petitioned to have the charges against him quashed, alleging that the investigator who wrote the damning Cal/OSHA technical report that forms a basis for the prosecution was involved in a murder as a teenager. If the judge agrees, the charges cannot be refiled because the statute of limitations has expired.

Tactics such as these won’t lessen the national attention the settlement has received in the scientific community or the impact it can have at UC and nationwide—if it is enforced. Elston does see a possibility for slippage in enforcement. “Sadly missing from the agreement is any kind of discussion that they’re going to hold their PIs responsible for worker safety,” he says. “Are the PIs going to be subjected to progressive discipline if they do not adhere to the agreement? The agreement doesn’t say anything about it.” Such discipline is widely considered an important element of enforcing safety. The settlement does give the district attorney the power to monitor compliance and seek penalties in the case of a breach, and safety experts and others—including members of Sangji’s union, University Professional and Technical Employees—will probably be watching the results closely.

Overall, it appears that—like Julius Caesar’s 49 B.C.E. decision to attack the Roman Republic by leading his army over the Rubicon River in defiance of orders and law—the settlement marks a point of no return. The countless university officials and faculty members across the country who have followed the case now know that they can be held legally responsible for the safety of their labs in California and states with similar laws, and held morally responsible everywhere.

The Sangji case “has raised the attention of everybody in the academy,” Elston says. “When I talk to my safety colleagues in the academy, they have a heightened awareness and they are making sure that their principal investigators have a heightened awareness also.” He cites the recent, swift action at the University of Florida following a series of lab explosions as an encouraging example. “The dean of the college that was responsible for the chemistry department shut down research for some extended period of time” to investigate the incidents, he says.

“Regardless of what happens to Harran, I think the awareness of laboratory safety has been brought to the forefront,” Elston continues. “It’s going to take a long time for complacency to come back to the academy.”

Now is the time for academic institutions and lab chiefs everywhere to give their real and unwavering support to their students, trainees, and employees—people like Sangji, whose lives and futures depend on universities’ and lab chiefs’ determination to provide safe workplaces and adequate safety training.