High Profile Lab Accidents-Environmental Health & Safety - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

High Profile Lab Accidents

There has been an increase in high profile incidents in university laboratories across the country.  This has caused some unfavorable reporting by Chemical and Engineering News and U. S. Chemical Safety Board. 

They describe "an epidemic" of serious safety issues in academia and have made allegations of incident rates higher than in general industry.  These accidents have occurred at UCLA, Yale, Texas Tech, and University of Missouri.  Lab accidents have also occurred here. 

So just who is responsible for safety?

What is Environmental Health and Safety's role?  We can certainly train faculty, staff and students in general compliance requirements and give people the tools to do their own risks evaluations.  But there are so many processes and they are ever changing.  Individual principal investigators are the only ones who know each process.

What is the faculty's responsibility?  A courtroom in California says "Be a manager, go to jail!"  A  UCLA professor is now facing criminal and civil penalties.  This professor, Dr. Patrick Harran, faces up to 4 ½ years in prison, if convicted, for not providing adequate training to Sheri Sangyi.  Sangyi had been on the job for three months when she was given a pyrophoric chemical to handle.  A small amount of the chemical ignited and caught her clothes on fire.  She died nine days later. 

Special hazards require special training from the faculty and this training must be documented. The faculty must work with their subordinates to make sure they understand the risk of each high hazard process.  

What is a student's responsibility?  Can safety be assigned to a graduate student? It is commonly done but that assignment won't relieve a faculty member from his or her responsibility. Graduate students are still learning how to do research and need mentoring.  Remember, they are cooks and not chefs.

We need to look inwardly at our own practices. We need to take seriously the OSHA requirement to write standard operation procedures for particularly hazardous substances.  Let's expand that practice to particularly hazardous operations.   Also, don't let students work alone on high hazard processes.

EH&S wants to partner with you to identify and mitigate risks in your high hazard operations.

By: Madelyn Miller, mmiller@andrew.cmu.edu, 412-268-1377