June 24, 2009

More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji

Chemical & Engineering News has a followup story on the UCLA lab fire which killed Sheri Sangji in December 2008. The University of California, Los Angeles has paid the OSHA fine but is appealing the state's findings of workplace safety violations. According to the article, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, said the university's appeal was necessary to ensure "that there was no citation or finding that can be used against the university in any future proceeding."

We recently profiled the Sangji case, echoing some of the preventive measures suggested by the original article. Our post drew some push back in our comment section. Chemjobber disagreed with our recommendation and pointed to an article he wrote disputing much of the original article. (He has covered the Sangji case extensively over a series of posts so if the case interests you from either a science or a safety perspective, we've listed some of his excellent entries at the end of our post.)

Another commenter said "Certainly agree that suggestion to make safety records a key driver for tenure descisions is ignorant. Not to mention self-serving, when made by a "safety professional."

We had a chuckle at the use of the scare quotes on the term safety professional...but in this case, it is spot on. Just to clarify the record, nobody at Lynch Ryan is a "safety professional" and we don't make any money from providing safety services. In point of fact, if we really wanted to be self-serving about things, we would keep our mouths shut about safety because more frequent workplace accidents usually mean we make more money -- out-of-control workers comp costs are generally what drive employers to seek our consulting services. Despite this, we would happily see workplace accidents and injuries eliminated and feel confident we could find another business niche were that the case. Maybe we would go back to school and study chemistry!

Regardless, we don't think safety professionals should be lightly dismissed. We have seen other "exotic" workplaces involving science, medicine, and technology make their peace with safety standards and oversight and still be innovative and competitive. And in this case, if Cal/OSHA is correct, there was nothing particularly exotic about the safety procedure that might have saved this young worker's life. They cite the lack of a lab coat as the single most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji's death. And as the C&E story notes, on a recent lab walk-through by union reps, people in the lab still weren't wearing lab coats.

Some workplaces come by safety voluntarily with a commitment from the top. Other employers - even generally well meaning employers - don't truly embrace safety until they have had paid some very steep price. Sometimes that price is a gut-wrenching human one, as when a worker dies; other times, the toll is purely economic, in high workers comp costs, ruinous lawsuits, and bad publicity. Unfortunately, money is often the best change agent. That, and the push provided by standards and enforcement under OSHA.

While the case under discussion involved a paid employee, many workers in academic labs are students so workers' comp generally doesn't come into play. We don't believe that making lab and worker safety standards a factor in tax-funded research and grants is a particularly radical suggestion. We would also favor safety being a line item in any performance reviews for professors who oversee labs as is often the case in private industry. Right now, the professor in the UCLA lab will likely suffer an enormous personal toll; we favor prospective and preventative measures over retrospective ones.

In any case, we thank our commenters for their opinions and we would point any interested readers to the fascinating comments that followed the original article in Slate's discussion forum. Students, scientists, private lab workers and safety professionals all weigh in, and as would be expected, opinions run the gamut. Some agree with much of the article citing a prevailing culture of bravado and a tendency to view safety as the "the redheaded stepchild" or "the scapegoat who took the fall when anything bad happened." Others see safety as the responsibility of the individual, with one prickly commenter going so far as to suggest that Sangji's carelessness was such that her death should have been labeled as a suicide. Yikes.

To follow this story as it develops, we refer you to Chemjobber. For those interested, here are some of his posts to date, with the most recent post at the top
Where is Sheri Sangji's notebook?: further details emerge in the UCLA/tBuLi case
Sheri Sangji update: recent articles
Expectation": more details emerge about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case
Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool?
Critiquing the LA Times Sangji article, etc.
What happened to Sheri Sangji?

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1 Comment

Thanks, Julie. Very kind of you.

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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on June 24, 2009 12:18 PM.

Fail-Safe Failure was the previous entry in this blog.

Health Wonk Review's Confederations Cup Edition is the next entry in this blog.

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