Who is Responsible When a Laboratory Accident Occurs?
We have discussed the Shari Sanji death in several previous editions of Lab Notes. Shari died from burns suffered when her clothing was ignited when working alone with the pyrophoric compound tert-Butyllithium. Dr. Patrick Harran was the Principal Investigator of the laboratory where Shari worked. He is currently facing multiple felony charges because of her death. The question asked in the title of this article was answered by the State of California. Who is responsible when a laboratory accident occurs? The State of California says the Principal Investigator (PI) is. The PI is ultimately responsible for the safety and health of those working in his/her laboratory; for ensuring lab staff receive adequate training for working with hazardous materials or processes; and for ensuring employees are provided and are using all appropriate personal protective equipment and safety devices.
I have provided a link here where you can read the State of California's response to the motion submitted by Dr. Harran's defense team to dismiss felony charges.
I think it is extremely important for all laboratory Principal Investigators to closely read the People's Response to the defense's motion to dismiss felony charges. I have included a couple paragraphs from the Peoples Response below that contain some key points which I have highlighted.
Defense, in its motion, claims that holding defendant Harran to answer on felony charges will not protect society in any way. (E.g. M.T.D. p. 46:11-12.) This assertion could not be any father from the truth. The broad implications of holding defendant Harran to answer on felony charges will deter him and others in the scientific academic community from committing similar Labor Code violations. It took the tragedy of victim Sangji's death to wake up the academic scientific community to their rampant indifference to complying with mandated laboratory safety standards. Holding defendant Harran to answer on felony changes will keep this community on notice that this indifference will not be tolerated and failure to comply with safety standards will have serious consequences. When tragedy strikes, the natural response is to frenetically evaluate the situation and seek to correct those deficiencies that caused the tragedy. Positive changes are often made shortly after the tragic events. Here for example, within ten days of the lab incident that resulted in victim Sangji's death, three lab coats were requested from the stockroom on defendant Harran's account. (R.T. pp. 387:20-388:17.) Other positive changes related to laboratory safety have been mandated by UCLA. By holding defendant Harran to answer on felony charges, this will ensure continued compliance with all safety provisions as mandated by federal and state law as well as the safety policies and provisions promulgated by UCLA, not just in the short term, but in the long term as well.
There is no dispute as to the nature of the charges filed against defendant Harran. He is charged with three violations of the California Labor Code. He is not charged with committing a violent felony. The People agree that defendant Harran is a successful organic chemist. His Curriculum Vitae speaks to his accomplishments. (Defense Exhibit A.) This is precisely why the current offenses cannot be considered in a vacuum and the record should reflect a thoughtful and conscientious assessment of all relevant factors. (People v. Alvarez (1997) 14 Cal.4th 968, 979.) This court should consider defendant Harran' s expertise in organic chemistry as militating against reduction of the charges to misdemeanors. Defendant Harran had about 18 years of organic chemistry experience at the time he hired victim Sangji to work in his laboratory. One can assume those years of experience working in the laboratory translate into a wealth of knowledge regarding the potential hazards of working in an organic chemistry laboratory as well as the hazards of certain organic reagents such as tert-Butyllithium. Furthermore, as a Principal Investigator since at least 1997, he had primary responsibility for the activities of his staff and, in the lab, was the "top of the chain of command." Defendant Harran had a duty to share his vast knowledge and train victim Sangji. Ambition and success cannot justify ignoring the duty to comply with mandated safety regulations. And, in this case, defendant Harran failed to do so by failing to train victim Victim Sangji on the proper method of handling tert-Butyllithium as well failing to ensure that she wear a lab coat.
Please ensure your laboratory workers are properly trained, properly supervised, are provided and using all appropriate personal protective equipment and are held responsible if you find them not following laboratory safety policies and procedures.