Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Safety, Safety, Safety Should be No. 1 Job in Research Labs

Working in a research lab doesn’t even come close to the risk involved in being a logger, which ranks as the most deadly occupation in America.

Nonetheless, handling a variety of risky substances and chemicals does involve significant hazards. We were reminded of that in the last few days in the wake of a tragic case at UCLA and the anthrax exposure flap at the CDC.

According to a report yesterday, as many as 84 persons were potentially exposed to live anthrax at CDC laboratories in Atlanta.  The details of how the exposure came about are still being investigated, but it is clear that it involved a breach of safety standards.

Anthrax, of course, can cause death.  Along the way, the inhalation form of the disease “progresses rapidly with high fever, severe shortness of breath, rapid breathing, bluish color to the skin, a great deal of sweating, vomiting blood and chest pain that may be so severe as to seem like a heart attack,” according to

Sheri Sangji
Sangji family photo
At UCLA, the case involves the horrible burning death of a lab worker, Sheri Sangji, in 2008. The University of California once said the charges that it was at fault were "outrageous."  It took four years for the University of California to accept responsibility for the conditions that led to her death.  The school has agreed to follow safety procedures and create a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name.

The researcher involved, Patrick Harran, became the first professor in the United States to be
charged with a felony in the death of a worker.  Last Friday a judge approved a deal in which Harran admitted no wrongdoing.  According to an article by Kim Christensen in the Los Angeles Times, he agreed to “develop and teach an organic chemistry course for college-bound inner-city students for five summers, perform 800 hours of non-teaching community service in the UCLA Hospital system, and pay $10,000 to the Grossman Burn Center in lieu of restitution to Sangji's family.”

In return, he will serve no jail time.

Her family was bitter about both settlements.  The family said in a statement,
"This settlement, like the previous one with UCLA, is barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual." 
What does all this have to do with stem cell research in California? Thousands of persons work in labs linked to such research in the Golden State. Sometimes they deal with dangerous substances.  It behooves the scientists in charge to ensure that none of their workers suffer because of a failure to adhere to safety standards. Moreover, safety at state-funded labs should be a matter of utmost concern for the folks at the California stem cell agency who have more than $1 billion in experiments under their oversight.  It wouldn’t hurt to remind recipients of state largess of the need for making safety their No. 1 task.

For other pieces and commentary on the UCLA case, see OSHA faults UCLApervasive problems in labs, and UCLA response.

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