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Can a Graduate Student Get Workers’ Compensation?


Attention to laboratory safety generally focuses on preventing injuries. A case at Cornell University, however, raises important issues about what happens after an injury has occurred. 

Chemical engineering graduate student Richard Pampuro suffered permanent, disabling damage to his right hand—and, one supposes, harm to his finances from two operations and extensive physical therapy, and possibly to his long-term earning potential—after glass from a shattered bottle pierced his arm, severing tendons and an artery. Now, Pampuro’s fellow graduate students are demanding that he receive workers’ compensation, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The university disagrees, and the New York State Workers' Compensation Board is investigating.

It’s very frightening for graduate students to expose themselves to risk and not know that they’re taken care of if something goes wrong.

—Richard Pampuro

The legal status of students injured in university labs is often unclear. Workers’ compensation laws vary widely among states, as do universities’ policies, The Chronicle notes. At some schools, graduate students qualify for the coverage; at others they do not. 

Beyond that, occupational safety laws that cover employees do not apply to students. When a lathe that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration identified as lacking required safety features killed Yale University senior physics student Michele Dufault in 2011, the agency lacked jurisdiction to sanction the university. (Yale University denied that the lathe was substandard). 

On the other hand, when lab assistant Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji died in 2009 as a result of a lab fire at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, she was an employee. An investigation by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health led to felony charges against UC and the lab chief, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The university settled the case in 2011, but the case against Harran is ongoing.

Barbara A. Knuth, dean of the Cornell graduate school, insists that graduate students can do better without workers' compensation. In an interview with The Chronicle, Knuth says that the university often covers medical expenses that aren't covered by insurance, and it provides a full stipend while the student recovers. Workers' compensation, she says, covers only a percentage of an employee's salary.

Pampuro, though, wants certainty. "It’s very frightening for graduate students to expose themselves to risk and not know that they’re taken care of if something goes wrong," he says in the article. He also questions the equity of differential treatment of students and employees doing similar tasks in the same labs. "A very clear statement of coverage that emulates what’s guaranteed to those around them working in the same spaces and doing the same work would give peace of mind to graduate students," he adds.

Providing clarity and peace of mind—even a guarantee of coverage for injuries—seems the least that universities can do for the students whose labor generally makes possible the grants that provide the institution substantial support.