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Education

Students, the Other Unprotected Lab Animals 236

Posted by kdawson
from the protection-available-but-not-to-you dept.
theodp writes "Slate reports on the horrible — and preventable — death of a young UCLA biochemist in a t-butyl lithium incident, which led a Chemical Health and Safety columnist to the disheartening conclusion that most academic laboratories are unsafe venues for work or study. It's estimated that accidents and injuries occur hundreds of times more frequently in academic labs than in industrial ones. Why? For one thing, Slate says, occupational safety and health laws that protect workers in hazardous jobs apply only to employees, not to undergrads, grad students, or research fellows who receive stipends from outside funders."
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Students, the Other Unprotected Lab Animals

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  • School vs Industry (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Saturday May 23, 2009 @10:59PM (#28071869)

    I spent 2 and half years (I graduated early) studying Computer science in University. What surprised me when I got out was that the things I stressed over every day in school were only the thinnest onion skin of what was required of me in the industry. If I were to retake an exam after a couple years in the industry, I wouldn't have any problem with it.

    The difference is that industry requires so much more focus and professionalism than schooling does. So it's no surprise that students would fuck up in a laboratory much more than a junior clinician with a month of on the job training.

    It isn't about lack of OSHA oversight, it's about how academia considers safety as an afterthought.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:03PM (#28071891)

      And what kind of workplace hazards did you experience as a computer scientist? Aside from the obvious risks associated with sitting in a non-ergonomic chair for too long.

    • by tyrione (134248) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:25AM (#28072325) Homepage

      I spent 2 and half years (I graduated early) studying Computer science in University. What surprised me when I got out was that the things I stressed over every day in school were only the thinnest onion skin of what was required of me in the industry. If I were to retake an exam after a couple years in the industry, I wouldn't have any problem with it.

      The difference is that industry requires so much more focus and professionalism than schooling does. So it's no surprise that students would fuck up in a laboratory much more than a junior clinician with a month of on the job training.

      It isn't about lack of OSHA oversight, it's about how academia considers safety as an afterthought.

      Don't compare Computer Science to Chemistry. Having Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science on my c.v., M.E. stomped all over CS for professional standards, strict materials and manufacturing lab rules and much more. Why? Because you don't work with Milling Machines in CS or Oxy-Acetylene/Arc Welders while machining and assembling a CAR versus writing test cases in software. The fact this University doesn't have strict standards falls square on the shoulders of their full time professional staff who manage the labs and should be drilling into these kids Factors of Safety. If we ever mishandled metal lathes we got our asses chewed by the machinists. The manufacturing lab, strengths and materials labs and metallurgy labs were brutal on idiots who were not cautious about what they did in a building with plenty of options available to cause an explosion.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by linzeal (197905)
        Yeah but why should OSHA only protect the instructors. As a fellow Mech and EE I can assure you that industry standards are only as stringent as what will prevent them from getting lawsuits. Universities do not value a student as much as an employee because students are customers.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by sumdumass (711423)

          OSHA doesn't protect students worse then employees. They are a set of standards with some strict rules and as long as an employee is supervising, no matter how many students are in the lab or whatever, the OSHA rules apply.

          Now the Student isn't on their own if an instructor isn't present either. They are protected by consumer protection laws which means that the lab should have at minimum, guidelines that match OSHA requirements for everyone if not more stringent guidelines because of previous lawsuits.

          This

      • You were lucky. I read Chemistry at a certain well known university in the south west of england, and having done an internship at the John Innes (Institute) Centre the previous year (i.e. *real* lab work)was totally shocked at the sloppy, dirty, abused lab equipment. Safety? Standards? Nope, just the usual generic white crystalline shit on balances (my old boss at J.I.I would have nailed me to a tree if I ever left equipment in that state). Good luck if you had the misfortune that the white shit was NaCN (
  • by Martin Blank (154261) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:00PM (#28071875) Journal

    I wonder if some of the lab students fall into the trap of thinking that they knew enough, and not realizing that their earlier practices were put in place not to protect them as novices, but to protect them at all times.

    It seems similar to something that I've read happens to some pilots. In those cases, a pilot with, say, 200 hours still considers himself a novice, and will carefully follow the checklist and be extremely careful to not get overwhelmed. That pilot may reach 800 hours, and think that he's got it down. This is, according to one investigator (Australian, I think) the most dangerous time to be a pilot. Once this stage is passed, usually around 1500 hours, the pilot has had enough close calls to realize that what they learned early on should be applied all throughout their career.

    IIRC, this was the conclusion of an inquiry into a crash of an Australian military helicopter that killed most or all aboard when it came down too hard and too fast to the back of a ship, bounced off, and landed in the ocean. The base reason was "pilot error," but there was much more to the psychology of the situation.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:18AM (#28072295)

      Actually, there are many "plateaus" that pilots need to go through as the learn their craft. When I was getting my private pilots license, I very clearly remember flight instructor Dave telling me that the only thing that flight instructors did was to basically teach us just enough to kill ourselves. The flight instructors hope was that when we inevitably got ourselves into a fix, he/she had taught us enough so that we could get ourselves out of it in one piece. Dave also said that I would, before a 100 hours of "pilot in command" time frame had elapsed, get myself into trouble and he really hoped that I would survive. And he was serious...and he was right. At the 60 hour time frame of piloting, I did the "low altitude, low airspeed, NO place to go" mistake on landing. Nearly killed myself. It made a lasting impression.

      Gordon

      • by FlyingGuy (989135)

        I have been a private pilot for 10 years now.

        I feel ya pal. Keep using that license to learn every time you push the balls to the wall.

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:41AM (#28072373)

      I wonder if some of the lab students fall into the trap of thinking that they knew enough, and not realizing that their earlier practices were put in place not to protect them as novices, but to protect them at all times.

      I don't know if it's overconfidence so much as getting lazy. I worked in a lab that was classified biohazard level 2 (I think) when I was a lab noob. Always wore gloves for one thing. I'm somewhat less of a noob now in a different lab. When I first started in my current lab, I would wear gloves for everything, even, say, when cutting chicken embryos out of their eggs. Clearly nothing in that which is going to hurt me.

      Now I've probably swung too far the other direction. I've caught myself doing stupid things like not putting gloves on when carrying a test tube full of toxins because I would have had to walk 10 feet to the gloves and was in a hurry. I guess there was a little "I probably didn't get any outside the test tube" but it was mostly just laziness and bad habits. And I think that's probably where most of the dangers in academic labs come from.

      Experienced researchers are often just as cavalier about dangers as anyone else in my experience, I think because a close call with lab safety, in some labs anyway, is much less dramatic than with a pilot. If you almost spill something bad on yourself, you might know it's something you want to avoid, but that's kind of academic. "Oh, a carcinogen almost landed on me, that would have been bad." You might laugh about it with your labmates next week, hopefully tell yourself you won't do that particular mistake again.

      If you almost crash a helicopter on the other hand, you probably nearly wet your pants, and the reaction isn't "Oh, that would have been bad," it's more "OHMIGOD I CAN'T BELIEVE I'M STILL ALIVE!" A much more viceral experience that probably causes you to be more careful with -everything- rather than just that one mistake. At least, I would guess that's the case.

      • by reddburn (1109121)

        I don't know if it's overconfidence so much as getting lazy.

        Agreed - there's also the possibility of the classic grad student folly: understanding everything in the mind without having the mastered the nuances of technique...

    • by Bazer (760541)
      There's a very interesting study about "How Chronic Self-Views Influence (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance" [fsu.edu].
      The gist of it is that it quantifies what you describe:
      • People with little ability tend to overestimate their own skill.
      • People with great ability tend to underestimate their own skill.
  • but.... (Score:5, Funny)

    by gclef (96311) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:03PM (#28071889)

    But, if they make the labs safe, where will the great stories (like pouring liquid nitrogen down a drain, or projectile canisters [umdnj.edu]) come from? C'mon, someone has to serve as an example to everyone else...

    • Mythbusters!

      Example:

      Myth: Grad student's don't need to wear gloves when handling aflatoxin [wikipedia.org] because the gloves are worth more than grad students.

      Test: We dropped pure aflatoxin on Tory's hands, and figure out how much a grad student is worth compared to a box of gloves.

      Outcome: Tory has horrible tumors growing on his hands, but the box of gloves is calculated to be worth more than the grad student.

      Myth: confirmed!

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Viridae (1472035)
      Pouring liquid nitrogen down a drain does sweet bugger all except possibly crack the pipes. Been there done that. Anyway quickest way to get rid of a small amount of it in a large enough room is to chuck it on the floor - evaporates harmlessly in seconds. More fun is an eppe (eppendorf 1.5 ml microcentrifuge tube) bomb - lump of dry ice in that, put the lid on and chuck it a suitable distance away. Makes a hell of a bang. Watch out for the lid which inevitably goes flying at speed.
  • by ladydi89 (1159055) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:04PM (#28071897)
    what a load of crap. We had tons of rules and safety precautions that we had to take when I was an undergrad in chemistry. The problem is people who think they are invincible against battery acid and other such dangerous chemicals. If you made it to college, one would hope you have enough common sense to follow the safety rules and not be careless, but an amazing amount of less than intelligent life manages to sneak through admissions.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by BrokenHalo (565198)
      Part of it might be to to with getting older. When I was in my 20s, I must have thought I was invincible, the way I carried on. Decades later, with a catalogue of (fortunately more or less innocuous) industrial injuries, I seem to have got the message.

      Which is why, when dealing with novices, I now try to stress the point that there is nothing uncool or wimpish about taking a few extra seconds for simple safety precautions.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by MikeURL (890801)
        When I was in my early 20s I took one or two lab courses in college. To make a long story short I took lab courses again in my early 30s and I was shocked at the risks I was expected to routinely endure.

        Included, but not limited to, large bottles of strong acids and bases in close proximity; the need to have things come to a boil in nearly every experiment; and virtually no supervision. I really doubt much had changed since I was 20-something but at 30-something I was horrified at the risk of just bein
    • My undergrad labs had stringent safety policies too. We're not talking about educations labs here -- we're talking about research labs. If you drift from your chem 110 lab to the teaching professor's lab, you'll see a big difference. I've seen this consistently in five 'top ten' chemistry schools. I'm an NIH post-doc, and despite the yearly safety training, I see it here too.

      There is common sense in lab safety, but there's diligence as well. Not everyone intuitively knows the dangers and hazards of t-but
    • by superid (46543)

      My friend is a university chemistry professor. Last night she said a student asked her "where is the absolute value key on my calculator?"

      Students lack a lot more than common sense.

  • by Werthless5 (1116649) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:15PM (#28071965)

    I am a grad student, and every lab I have seen puts an emphases on putting your safety first. I have a difficult time believing that commercial labs are any safer.

    • by ctmurray (1475885) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:48PM (#28072167) Journal
      Wait till you get to industry. Much stricter. Everytime there is an accident there is a report to OSHA and an internal investigation. Procedures are changed, even to the side of overkill. Factories all keep track of the number of days since a reportable accident, and this number is rarely more than a couple of months. We get training each and every year on safety. We get monthly email bulletins of near misses and what we can learn. There are walk around audits of the lab areas.

      Example: recently the factory started requiring a splash shield over the standard wrap around safety glasses. Why? Someone splashed a small amount of isopropyl alcohol in their eye even though they had the wrap around safety glasses. Do you wear both a splash shield and safety glasses when you dispense IPA from a squeeze bottle?

      In grad school a woman was severely burned refluxing THF (flammable solvent) with metallic sodium (pyrophoric as in this article) in a glass round bottom flask in a hood (using an electric heating mantle). By accident the round bottom was not vented to atmospheric pressure (the stop cock was still in the neck). The THF was refluxing under pressure and this woman noticed and removed the stopper. The THF immediately turned into a gas, filled the hood, caught fire and exploded. Blew out the windows from the building.

      No industrial lab would allow a flammable solvent near an electrically charged heating mantle. This would have to be done in a Class 1 Group D flammable safety room (intrinsically safe electricity wiring and blow out walls (no windows), you have to wear ESD shoes to prevent sparking) in a sealed container. At the graduate level you have no supervision, unlike undergrad labs that have been somewhat pre-screened and made medium safe. Not in grad school.
      • by backwardMechanic (959818) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @05:05AM (#28073337) Homepage

        I work in an academic lab. We have potential biological, radioactive, chemical, cryo, electrical and magnetic field hazards. Without a serious safety regime it could be a dangerous place. Like most university labs we have very few undergrad students, who are continuously supervised while they are with us for short projects. Everybody has to take regular safety courses. We also have to report safety incidents. We have regular safety audits. This is normal for a university. That you rarely reach more than a couple of months between reportable incidents speaks as much for your own record as for the quality of the system, we typically go for much longer without incident.

        I think part of the problem here is that most university grads have not been grad students. As an undergrad you are well protected (mainly from yourself). The experiments you undertake have been pre-designed to allow for your limited experience. But it's cool to talk about how dangerous your lab work is. If you start working as a grad student, the safety training really starts. It's not about going on courses where you learn about what to do in a fire (we have to do those to), it's about learning to always look for safety risks in what you do. As a scientist, you are best qualified to recognise risks in your own experiment. A good scientist quickly forms the habit of always checking.

        In my experience, safety for our industrial partners means someone in their safety office has signed off on an experiment. For me, it means I sit down with a colleague or two and work out if we need anything above the normal safety procedure. Different approaches for different environments. Both can work, if done properly.

      • by nlaporte (116203)

        No industrial lab would allow a flammable solvent near an electrically charged heating mantle.

        Gotta tell you, it would be great if that were the case but it just isn't. I work in a QC lab at a drug company, and people are always doing things like distilling isopropyl alcohol in a regular fume hood. There are hot plates used in the same hood as all sorts of solvents. Many people don't wear gloves, ever, even when working with stuff like mixtures containing DMSO. Safety will never trump people's intrisic laziness.

  • Procedure Design (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Demonantis (1340557) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:20PM (#28071985)
    Most companies experience an accident and put in place procedures to handle the danger. Most procedures performed in academic labs are designed by the student for that one time. There is some common sense, but things can more easily go wrong if the procedure hasn't had the same rigor as an industrial procedure applied to it.
  • by artor3 (1344997) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:21PM (#28071993)

    ...you let undergrads lose in a lab. A friend of mine was nearly electrocuted because one of her undergrads took it upon himself to do some wiring, and "grounded" the black wire to the body of a vacuum chamber. Little did he know that the "red is power, black is ground" convention that he learned in his intro to EE course doesn't apply to AC circuits.

    And that's just one of countless examples I've seen. Undergrads, and even many grad students, don't really know what they're doing half the time. That'd be fine, but the dangerous thing is that they think they do. If the guy in my previous example had taken a moment to ask, "Hey, which of these is ground?" then there would never have been a problem.

    Short of keeping an eye on all of them at all times, there's not much you can do. And since the people who would do the watching are probably first or second year grad students themselves, it might not even do you much good.

    • White is for Weddings, Black is for Funerals, and Green is for Grass that Grows on the Ground.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Fierlo (842860)
      As a recent engineering graduate, I can only confirm that you're far too accurate for my liking. Engineering students think that they have it all figured out, and go on to design some wonderfully impractical items.

      Almost all of which could be solved by simply asking someone with experience. The unfortunate reality is that many engineering students are taught that 'labourers' opinions aren't valuable. The simple truth is that they provide the 'applied' to the science that was studied. It's a shame, but man

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        Engineering students think that they have it all figured out, and go on to design some wonderfully impractical items.

        That's an understatement. Some genius engineer with a company that I may have something to do with thought that it would be a good idea to route a compressor's power wires around a fine-threaded screw instead of a hose.

        The compressor's vibration would then cause the wires' insulation to rub against the screw threads and eventually short the wires to the compressor's metal case. An ECO was sent out telling the service personnel to reroute the wires, but if the engineers would've figured that out when the

        • by Stevecrox (962208)
          You realise going from copper to gold connectors causes problems right? I You have differing input impedances [wikipedia.org] for the gold connectors and the copper/silicon. While I agree with your point about the wire. Unless you want to go all gold/copper/silicon using gold connectors offers no real improvement, its the audiophile eqviulent of Apple's "Mac's can't get virus's" in the computer world.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by smellotron (1039250)

      This is what happens whenever you let undergrads lose in a lab.

      How ironic that this is the one time that "loose" is actually the correct spelling, yet "let[ting] undergrads lose" is still somehow appropriate to the topic.

    • ...you let undergrads lose in a lab. A friend of mine was nearly electrocuted because one of her undergrads took it upon himself to do some wiring, and "grounded" the black wire to the body of a vacuum chamber. Little did he know that the "red is power, black is ground" convention that he learned in his intro to EE course doesn't apply to AC circuits.

      Honestly, this sounds 100% like the professor or lab instructor's fault. You can't blame the undergrad for not knowing something that intuitively makes no sense.

      When teaching safety standards (such as the color-coding of the wires), proper context should have been provided, ie. that the black/red convention only applies to DC circuits. However, I could see how this could easily be overlooked or misinterpreted.

      What I can't see being overlooked is that the students were given a piece of equipment that presu

      • by Rich0 (548339) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @07:48AM (#28074025) Homepage

        I think that there are several reasons you don't see this kind of stuff in industry:

        1. Liability. As a result of liability everybody has their job and that is all that you do. If an electrical device fails in the lab, the chemist asks for it to be fixed and somebody qualified to perform the repair does so. Nobody just opens up an instrument and starts soldering wires. Liability also means that if an employer fails to provide proper equipment they face serious consequences.

        2. Funding. Since there is a profit motive for using the instrument there is money available to get it fixed properly, and right away. Employees don't have to do without, and so they are not tempted to do their own repairs.

        3. Enforcement. OSHA requires that employers strictly enforce safety rules. If an inspector comes in and finds 10 employees doing something unsafe, the employer can't just point to the rulebook and training and say that they are "rogue employees." Employers are actually expected to discipline and even terminate employees who do not follow safety rules. The reason is simple - otherwise rules just become legal cover and employers will say that rules should be followed, but fire the slowest people in the operation until everybody figures out that they are expected to cut corners.

        4. Inspections. Most industrial labs have routine safety inspections and clear chains of responsibility. Sure, academic labs have occasional inspections, but very little accountability. Where I work every lab has a designated safety officer, who is accountable for any safety violations in their lab. The formalized inspections are essentially designed to make sure they are doing their job. Lab safety officers are expected to police their labs and keep them in order. Safety violations are reported to senior management and there are serious consequences for a lax attitude towards safety. Failure to comply with instructions of a Lab Safety Officer would result in fairly swift discipline, and failure of a safety officer to catch safety problems would subject them to discipline (or at least replacement in the role).

        Academic labs should be inspected, and when violations are found the university should be fined - plain and simple. If the university claims that students aren't obeying the rules, then the university should still be fined and advised to start enforcing the rules if they don't want to be fined again. Safety is serious business.

  • meh (Score:5, Informative)

    by SuperBanana (662181) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:22PM (#28072005)

    Where I work, everyone in the entire BUILDING is required to take safety training. Everyone that actually works regularly in the lab space are required to take more training. If you don't, the school shuts off your access card.

    The school makes your supervisor fill out a form each year that specifically inquires as to what you will be working with (gross simplification: animals, radioactive materials, hazardous chemicals.) Training is based off that.

    Just because safety protocols at one school sucks (example: Texas A&M [corante.com]) doesn't mean it does everywhere.

  • What a shame! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    As an individual who works at a pharma company, I can tell you that the joke isn't "I'm off like a Prom dress" - it's "I'm off like a flaming lab coat". You would be surprised how quickly they will throw down those, if the time is right. A $10 item could have saved this individual. This is a tragedy.

    • by TheLink (130905)
      I'm thinking lab coats can also be improved. It's not that easy to take a flaming lab coat off.
  • Give me a break! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cyn1c77 (928549) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:25PM (#28072037)

    I am sorry that this woman died, but I 100% disagree with this fine. The woman was a research assistant who was working off-hours, alone in the room, and did not have the necessary protection on. She screwed up bigtime.

    I find it hard to believe that she made it through all those years of schooling without knowing that (1) a lithium compound is pyrophoric and (2) she probably should have had protective equipment on. No amount of training that the UC system could provide can fix a lazy student with a key to the lab.

    For someone with a PhD to make these mistakes is akin to a regular Joe forgetting to look both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a car. It sucks, but it is only the victim's fault.

    Of course, it is never fashionable for politicians to blame the victim.

    • by cloricus (691063)
      I am with you. I don't understand why people are looking for some one to blame when it clearly, based on the detailed facts we have been given, is the fault of the lady who died. It is a shame that any one has to die but it happens.
    • Re:Give me a break! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:44PM (#28072147) Journal
      I'm guessing that this is one of those situations where she knew all that stuff; but was under pressure(internal or external) to get something done, and didn't bother to do it right. Easy to do, and 90% of the time it doesn't bite you. Sometimes, it does.
    • Re:Give me a break! (Score:4, Informative)

      by Arguendo (931986) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:44PM (#28072149)
      Blaming the victim sounds harsh when the article indicates that the failure to wear protective clothing was systemic:

      The 15-page report cites a deficiency in the department's records of safety and health training on exposure to hazardous chemicals. It notes that a safety inspection of the Harran lab by UCLA on 30 October had "identified [the failure of employees to wear required protective clothing] and recommended that laboratory coats must be worn while conducting research and handling hazardous materials in the laboratory."

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        recommended...

        there's the issue summed up in one word

        • The wording of these safety reports is essential. Same happened to the subway of Cologne. They sent engineers to one of the buildings along the track that had cracks in it. These engineers wrote a report in which they described that it didn't look so bad, but recommended further investigation. This lead to the city not looking in to it anymore, and a collapse of the city library a few months later, killing several people and destroying irreplaceable historical documents. As far as protective lab clothing i
          • by drolli (522659)

            The engineers said they are not qualified for it and somebody else should check it.

    • by tirerim (1108567)
      TFA indicates that she didn't have Ph.D., just a bachelor's degree. It's not clear from the article that anyone ever told her she ought to be wearing protective gear; in fact, a previous inspection (before she worked there) noted the failure of employees to wear lab coats.
      • Re:Give me a break! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tyrione (134248) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:28AM (#28072331) Homepage

        TFA indicates that she didn't have Ph.D., just a bachelor's degree. It's not clear from the article that anyone ever told her she ought to be wearing protective gear; in fact, a previous inspection (before she worked there) noted the failure of employees to wear lab coats.

        I point this failing right at the Secondary Level in High schools with Chemistry labs being removed after those idiots in Colorado. In Washington State they removed most school districts chem labs, bio labs and more. You get shown basic lab safety at that level, long before you enter a University. There is a serious disconnect that they removed the trades from High School, handcuffed the Hard Science labs and created integrated mathematics to shuffle through the herds of lowest common denominator. Challenge the kids and show them the beauty and dangers of Hard Science so they have a respect for it.

        • by RobertLTux (260313) <robert@laurencemartin. o r g> on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:49AM (#28072403)

          we needs to get back to the whole
          play science for the munchkins (where vinegar and baking soda are the worst chemicals they use)
          get more real as they get bigger (when they can add a chemical to a half full beaker of water correctly they can go beyond play stuff)
          by the time they are old enough for a "wand" they should be using fire and the more nasty stuff
          and by the time they are in high school they should be working with 3 liter kegs of Hydroflouric acid and other "fun stuff"

          by the time they are of legal age they should be able to work out how to brew a keg and make their own fireworks
          (and know that combining these is a bad thing)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ctmurray (1475885)
      Grad school is all about working "off hours", I've been there and done that. I did not have safety glasses in grad school, at work I am required to have them and they are paid for by my employer. They go around and check on your use of PPE (personal protective equipment) and inspect your lab for safety (this did not happen in grad school) At an industrial job any new process requires a review by the safety team. You are completely on your own at grad school. The victim in most accidents like this have a rol
    • When I was in CS at Purdue, there where CS grad students whose undergraduate degrees were in some unrelated field, like basket weaving, who should never have been allowed to touch a keyboard, much less pyrophoric chemicals. From the article linked to by the article. "Less than 5% of [those] who work in a lab have ever worked with t-butyl lithium," and it is unlikely, he continues, that a student would "pick this us up on the undergraduate level."

      I know I made enough non-lethal mistakes in high school t
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      UC's own inspection found deficiencies last October, but they didn't act on them:

      "a safety inspection of the Harran lab by UCLA on 30 October had âoeidentified [the failure of employees to wear required protective clothing] and recommended that laboratory coats must be worn while conducting research and handling hazardous materials in the laboratory.â But it says that the lab âoedid not implement procedures for correcting unsafe and unhealthy conditions, work practices and work procedures in a timely manner based on the severity of the hazard.â"

      The article also implies they're not keeping records they are required to. A $30k fine seems entirely justified to me (and apparently to the university, who didn't contest it) - that doesn't mean the woman wasn't being foolishly reckless.

    • by Goldsmith (561202) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:02AM (#28072231)

      She was an undergraduate, not a graduate student, let alone a PhD. She wasn't even a science major.

      Why did she have a key? Why was she allowed in the lab alone? Why was she told to work with lithium?

      If this was a mistake made by an experienced researcher, I would agree with you wholeheartedly, but letting her in the lab was a serious mistake in judgment on the part of the PI.

    • by Translation Error (1176675) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:34AM (#28072351)
      Except according to the article, the university wasn't able to show that she'd ever been trained to handle the substance she was working with. The university also knew this lack of training was an issue:

      including its inability to show that Sangji had been trained to handle the dangerous substance and the lack of proper protective attire. UCLA's own safety officials had already faulted the lab on the latter issue back in October, but the problem went uncorrected.

      It wasn't a question of someone ignoring the protocols she'd been taught--it was a case of someone never being trained in those protocols in the first place and nothing being done to correct this known problem.

      • What happened to common sense? Can you train for this? Its -4F at UIUC with a 20mph wind. Huge wind chill. How safe were lightly dressed people who parked their cars then ran into the school building? This was during Christmas break; no one was around. They could have slipped and fallen and incapacitated themselves. In that weather, exposure was a hazard.
    • Re:Give me a break! (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:35AM (#28072355)

      I am posting anonymously, since I don't know how much of this information has been previously published, but here you go:

      1) Working in a chemistry lab is all about working odd hours. In many labs, your PI forces you to. It's not really a choice.

      2) She was not alone in the lab. There were other people there, but they did not speak English.

      3) She was a research assistant, so she had a BA and thus the knowledge of the average first-year graduate student. No more and no less.

      4) While t-BuLi is spontaneously pyrophoric in lab, n-BuLi is not. Even if you somehow manage to learn this in class (unlikely, since you're probably not going to use it in an undergraduate lab), it's easy to mix up.

      5) As is mentioned below, no one in the lab wore appropriate protective clothing. It's hard to blame Sheri for following the example set by the rest of the lab.

  • When I was a grad student I had to transfer sec-butyl lithium, which I think is slightly less intense, but still fairly nasty. I wore thick gloves, a labcoat, cotton clothes, safety glasses, and had the fume hood shields between my face and what I was doing. If graduate students in their lab were routinely doing stuff like this without even a labcoat, they have some serious safety issues which I don't think are representative of academic research in general.
  • These are teenagers learning to work with dangerous chemicals and devices. Of course, accidents will occur, and that's tragic. But are there any statistics that a university research lab is a more dangerous place to work than an OSHA-compliant workplace filled with workers of the same age? For that matter, is the university research lab any more dangerous, hour for hour, than, say, teenage driving or basic training?

    In different words, is there any indication that there is a problem that needs fixing? If

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Saturday May 23, 2009 @11:53PM (#28072187)

    The way graduate students are used in academic labs is unethical.

    These are people who are told that their part-time pay for full-time (or more) work is offset by the opportunities that working in an academic lab and receiving an advanced academic degree will bring them. This is flat out not true. Prospective graduate students are misled into thinking that they have a place waiting for them at the top of academia or in charge of an industry lab.

    Congress and the media are told that we have a shortage scientific labor. Meanwhile, there is so much labor available to academic research labs that they are often getting people to work for them for free. It is absurd that postdocs working in commercially relevant fields of physics make less money than a construction worker or fast food manager. Why is that? It's not because there's a shortage of labor. At least the postdocs are employees.

    Why are we basing our research infrastructure on a rotation of untrained students? Why do we force those who are best at labwork to immediately move on to desk jobs? It certainly does nothing to promote safety, as people who know what they're doing are very quickly replaced (that's kind of the idea) and labs are structured and encouraged to keep the average level of competance low (it's education, right?). The whole thing makes no sense to me.

    • by FlyingGuy (989135) <flyingguy.gmail@com> on Sunday May 24, 2009 @01:17AM (#28072505)

      I agree with you. Unfortunately the solution to the problem would more then likely quadruple the cost of a collage education. GSI's teach, they grade, they do all the stuff the professor should be doing instead of having to publish, write grants and beg for money to fund relevant research so the department will stay afloat.

      Why do you think lecture halls have 200 students in them? I know four tenured professors at UC Berkeley, two in the chemistry department, two in the Anthropology Department, those 4 people would LOVE to teach more, but they have to be rainmakers instead of teachers.

      And when I say rain makers I don't mean just money, that also means luring people into their programs so the departments stay afloat.

    • by tgibbs (83782) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @02:18AM (#28072757)

      Congress and the media are told that we have a shortage scientific labor. Meanwhile, there is so much labor available to academic research labs that they are often getting people to work for them for free. It is absurd that postdocs working in commercially relevant fields of physics make less money than a construction worker or fast food manager. Why is that? It's not because there's a shortage of labor.

      Basic economics. Quite simply, it is because nearly every postdoc would much, much rather be doing science than working in the construction or fast food industries. And in general, people are willing to accept a lower salary for doing something that they like doing than they will accept for doing something that they don't like doing.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by vuo (156163)

        Or alternatively, because you HAVE TO follow a certain career path if you're in certain fields. First basic degree, then PhD, then postdoc. You don't get to choose this, if you want to be accepted as a competent researcher, and what's important, you have no leverage to complain about the wages, management, terms of contract or even safety. This is all pretty much at the discretion of the lab and professor. That argument of "they like the job so much" is applicable only up to a point.

    • Thank God this is finally coming up to the surface. The manner in which scientific research is conducted today is outright embarrassing.

      I just graduated with an undergraduate physics degree last week, and after working two summers in separate research labs, I have virtually no desire to seek a higher degree in my subject. The manner in which some graduate students are treated is terrible.* There's no way that I can justify subjecting myself to poverty-level wages during the prime years of my life.

      As much

      • I can't speak for other places, but in the Cal State University system, us graduate students who are paid as an RA or TA do have a union. I'm not sure how much the union actually does, but it's there and considering how little I'm paid I can't imagine what it'd be like if there wasn't a union.

        Besides that I do agree with your sentiments, but without being a grad student yourself I'm not sure you'll fully understand - though I'm sure you've experienced a little bit working in a couple labs (and yes - PHD com

  • by drolli (522659) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @12:25AM (#28072323) Journal

    I am an experimetal physcist and luckily i am spared from handling biologically active or organic compounds. However, i observe the following

    * electrical/fire safety (my father was an electrical engineer, and we installed the electrical outlets in a holiday home together): The most important princiciple i see violated is that the electrical conductor should not carry force. In the lab people regularly attach no additional mounting. An all scales of electrical wire, from nA to 200V*30A

    * procedural safety. Are there rules like: just do certain things with two persons? No, after all you have a PHD, masters, or bachelor, so you are more intelligent than the stupid morons and can handle that alone

    * instruction: have you ever had to sign of a "sheet which says: yes, i was instrcten on this machine, which potentially releases dangerous gases". Fuck. In industry, to operate a dangerous machine there needs to be some kind of proof you can do it. In research claiming to have seen somebody operating a similar machine is enough.

    * Exits. Hey, its resarch. We need this rack here, now. We dont care what you say, what we do is important and no, we dont have time to mount this cable over the door instead of creating a tripwire.

    * Gross miseducation in the lab courses (noe spefic instruction, operating devices by general rules of thumb). Instead of: "this is a pump. Dont the fuck operate it outside its operation range. may burn or explode" we hear: "yes, the inlet pressure meter is a little broken. The manual is actuall for another pump type, because we gave the students lab course the smallest pump. No problem it ran the last 5 years in that way". The other part is that if you mention in a lab course something is broken you usually get punished by spending more time there, and no reward at all.

    * After all: organizational issues: If student burns his hand, who is responsible? The Professor? he wasn there. The direct Supervisor (maybe also a student)? No, he usually doen not oficially supervise, its the professor. The security responsible of the institute: he has done his job with checking one time per year everything is roughly in order.

    Yes. labs are a fucking mess. I was my hands all the time when going out the lab. You never know what the asshole before you left on the desk. I always look for the exits and usually check the safety valves (i work with cryogenics), at least verifyin that no fuck-up blocked them by a clamp (i have seen that, that dewar could have levelled the lab quite efficiently). I check if the ground wire is attached. I make tricky questions to estimate the credibility of the co-workers. I am a pain in the butt if believe sth is dangerous. And i get really annoyed if people exhibit a "i kept the checklist by the letters" approach. Such assholes just make the checklist longer and longer and less comprehensible because they force the one keeping it to add every single part to be checked (i knew people whos task it was to check the marks of the fire exit which lead trouch a small storage room, they walked around up to the door of that room, i said "there is a huge pile blocking the door in this exit and the bulb in the small room is burned out. They just said: "yes but the markers leading there are ok", and put a check mark). I am very willing to bend rules, but everbody should be kept responsible for his safety and the safety of co-workers in the lab.

  • by JavaManJim (946878) on Sunday May 24, 2009 @01:25AM (#28072543)

    This article details what happened. What burned and how the handling mistake was made.

    http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2009/January/23010903.asp [rsc.org]

  • At my university, students are required to complete the same safety training as employees before they are let loose near a laboratory bench. Labs are regularly inspected for to verify that they are following safety standards. Nevertheless, I see no way that university laboratories, which have many graduate students with just a few years of experience, will ever be as safe as industrial labs in which the average employee has much more practical experience.

  • Years ago, I went back to academia after a few years in industry. At the time, we had a post-doc working on vaccines; a salesperson from one of the big vendors had walked in, and I was shooting the breeze with them when the post-doc left the room. I noticed she had left a brand-new container of an exotic toxin that she just received from Sigma on her desk- right next to her coffee.

    "Do they do this in industry?" I asked the vendor. Seriously- if it had been a "working" environment instead of academic, that

  • I work at a National Lab called um ... "furby" lab..... and by golly and by gosh ALL the safety rules apply to EVERYONE. We (the lab Furbions) pay particular attention to summerstudents/ undergrads/ postdocs/ new people to make sure they're following the rules. Every Single Person Who Sets Foot On Site Is Responsible For Their And Everyone Else's Safety. Corner cutting is very bad juju. Maybe it's different in the jello-mold sciences, but not here, not even a little bit. Violate the safety rules =
  • In the end I think the only difference is the experience, younger people haven't seen enough accidents to fully understand security. And this applies to everything.
  • I was a chemistry undergrad myself, and in looking back on lab conditions during that time, I can't help but think that the situation was pretty sorry from the safety standpoint. Between the low budget for equipment, lack of time for safety education (a one hour safety class for a three-tear long study program!) and the general don't-give-a-crap attitude of a lot of the students, I ended up inhaling more funky fumes, running for the eye baths, scrambling for the emergency lab shower and spending way too muc
  • Most of them seem to come from the lab.

    We all know something is wrong. Normally wearing the right clothes is not enforced in a lab if it slows people down. It is normal that 23year old undergrads work alone with dangerous substances. It is normal that dangerous substances are not broken up into appropriate quantities by lab personal but that students use syringes to take these from a big bottle. We all know that bad planning leads to the phd student asking the masters student to wire the pump/heater/rack in

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Goldsmith (561202)

      This is really the problem, isn't it? One day, we'll be responsible for these jerks who insist on learning safety the "hard way."

      I think we have to stop the total lab turnover. There have to be permanent academic research positions created in the physical sciences similar to what you have in medicine. We need people who are not postdocs, but not faculty. Most PhDs don't want to end up in a technician position, but if we were able to offer long term contracts at salaries competitive with faculty salaries

  • Any lab used for production or quality control in industry has to meet more stringent standards than an academic research lab. The rules to a certain degree assume qualified personnel and experiments without forgone conclusions. See http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=standards&p_id=10106 [osha.gov]
  • As someone who works in a university lab (I only do computational stuff now, but the lab still does experimental work), I thought I'd throw my two cents in. The differences between private biotech and public biomedical are not really that similar to the differences between academic CS and a software development shop, so most of the background that's been given is kinda irrelevant.

      First, there is a large reporting bias. People in the private sector have some greater tendency (we can argue about how large) to cover stuff up. In academia, the system of incentives discourages coverups much more thoroughly; also, there's a cultural difference between people who choose to be university professors and those who choose to go private, although obviously individual people vary tremendously.

      Second, in the academic sector you do actual experiments. Meaning, you don't know how things are going to work until you try it, and most people are doing different experiments. In most corporate research facilities, everyone does the same experiment on slightly different subjects or whatever. This does have a big impact on safety, industry is somewhat discouraged from having 500 people do the same unsafe experiment, but in a university you could have 500 people doing 300 experiments of which 75 are unsafe.

      Finally, there is a culture of disregard for safety precautions at the University level. In Industry, many of the safety rules are stupid - but following stupid rules is 90% of the job so people follow the rules. In the academic sector, when the fire department tells us we can't pour urea and ethanol down the drain because those are *dangerous chemicals*, it breeds resentment against the rules themselves.

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