Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this, may be I should.
My last trip to UK revealed something. A professor in Surrey told me about the new thing that is becoming common in UK campus – the Starbucks. He said that around 6 in the evening, research students are either in pubs or starbucks, socializing. Perhaps sharing their successes or failures. Interesting.
Then I asked about people working at night in the labs, is it still common?
I remember in the late 80’s, we would see some students sleeping in their offices or even the labs, with alarm clocks to wake them up to feed their bacteria or to collect data from the fermenters. Those biotech researchers were really something.
And there were also plenty of those owls that worked on their computers through the midnights until the early hours of the day, like me. But now, it is no longer the case. Campuses are darker at nights because stringent procedures are generally enforced in many campuses. Good or bad, it is arguable, but it was the results of more awareness in occupational safety. And it was irony that these principles were taught on campus, only to be implemented in the industry. What? Maybe it was true!
The professor said that a work permit (in one form or another) was now required and the student cannot work alone, they have to have company.
Working in laboratories can be hazardous. Lets go through some anecdotes. In 2010, a graduate student was injured due to explosion in a laboratory in Texas Tech University. The following year in 2011 a 22 year old student found dead in the laboratory with her hair tangled in the lathe machine in Yale.
I can vaguely recall the tragedy in 2002 that killed our own UTM’s student that was drown in the monsoon drain while helping his friend to take water sample, so I heard.
But the landmark case that changed the occupational safety standard in campus laboratories throughout the world may be attributed to the case of Sheri Shangji at UCLA on 29 December 2008. It was a Christmas break.
Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a Pakistani born student a recent chemistry graduate took a job as a research assistant at UCLA while waiting for the graduate school to commence. She wanted to study environmental law at UC Berkeley.
One day, while transferring up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another, the plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air.
The rest was history. The fire caught her clothing and she suffered a third degree burn and died 18 days later. Following a long investigation, the LA county filed charges to the professor and UCLA in December 2011, three years after the incident.
In July 2012, the university settled the matter with the court by agreeing to contribute USD500,000 to an endowment fund in the name of Sheri Sangji to provide scholarships for studying Environmental Law at UC Berkeley, and to carry out several other measures to increase safety awareness at UCLA.
Following an arraignment on Sept 5, 2012, Harran, the chemistry professor continues to struggle against the criminal charges against him for allegedly being negligent in ensuring safety in his laboratory. He could be jailed for 4.5 years. He was ordered to trial on April 26, 2013 and the case was concluded with a settlement in June 20, 2014. The verdict? Substantial and multiple forms of community services, plus small fine. Details can be obtained here http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/web/2014/06/Patrick-Harran-L-District-Attorney0.html. The career of the professor was saved.
The family members of Sheri were not happy about the settlement. But the case has many angles that one can argue from.
A lot of questions can be asked on this issue. Should we impose permit to work (PTW) and implement something similar to chemical industry in the university? In the interest of encouraging research and establishing academic excellence at affordable costs, people may differ in opinions on which turn to take – left, right or just go straight ahead. Definitely we don’t want to turn back because “square one” was a history. We don’t want to be back on it.
All in all, regardless of the situation, I believe that the standard of occupational safety in educational institutions – kindergarten, schools, universities – must be examined. We don’t have to wait for a few human sacrifices before making any positive initiative.
Aah… enough talk. Lets go ahead and do something… Lets practice what we preach.