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Charges filed in fatal workplace accident at university lab

Research assistants in university laboratories in Texas deserve the same workplace protections as those provided to other professionals. However, many of these university workers are forced to work under unsafe conditions, which can lead to devastating workplace accidents. That is what happened to one University of California, Los Angeles research assistance, who suffered such severe burns that she died in mid-January 2009. Now, the professor who was in charge of the victim’s research is facing labor code violations that could land him in prison for four years.

Official reports show that this is the first instance of criminal prosecution for a laboratory accident at an American academic institution. This could be a seminal personal injury case for those who suffer workplace accidents in a university setting.

Official reports show that the young woman suffered serious injury in late December 2008 while she was working with Tert-Butyllithium, a compound known to spontaneously ignite when it is exposed to air. The victim caught fire while others were in the lab. They tried to help by squelching the blaze, but their efforts were largely ineffective, though they called 911 immediately. The 23-year-old victim had recently graduated with her bachelor’s degree; she died just days after the incident.

The case has shined a spotlight on the disparity between safety culture at the nation’s universities when compared to similar laboratories in private industry. In fact, the victim in this case was not even wearing the minimum required protection — a fire-resistant lab coat — that would have been provided for an industrial chemist in a business environment. Further, few safety guidelines were provided for her work that day, with the woman’s professor only telling her to “be careful.”

As the professor’s case waits for a potential dismissal in appeals court, scores of academics have spoken on his behalf, saying that such an accident could have occurred in any professor’s lab. Still, this case could have wide-reaching implications for those who suffer workplace accidents in university settings. No workplace should be exempt from basic safety procedures designed to protect workers throughout industrial chemistry laboratories.

Source: The Spec, “A young lab worker, a professor and a deadly accident” Kate Allen, Mar. 30, 2014

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