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Rehab for (recovering) academics.
Why aren't professors and universities liable for the death of students? 
7th-Aug-2014 03:54 pm
pic#111812164 bunsen burner

A recent article in Chemistry World reminded me of an earlier blog post about the death of the student Sheri Shangji in a chemistry laboratory. The blog post describes that basically, if a student is killed in a university laboratory, neither the professor concerned nor the university are liable to any significance. Ignoring an example such as the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster, it seems incredulous that universities are not liable (as other entities throughout the private sector )for the safety of students (also echoed by other departments elsewhere, at least according to another blog post. Is anyone aware of a similar case elsewhere, e.g. within EU and if so, how does European state and EU laws compare?

7th-Aug-2014 07:15 pm (UTC)
As a PhD student, I did most of my work alone and at night. I worked with electrical equipment, vacuum stuff, microscopes, you name it.

At one point I set up a THF/K still (highly flammable organic solvent with a drying agent that starts burning on contact with water). In the middle of the night. By myself.

Now I work at a university where the professors ARE liable for student accidents. To work after hours, you have to follow a ton of procedures to cover the professor's ass. Some are simply difficult, some are impossible, so people go home, 'cause it's easier.

I have no idea about the details of the cases the OP is referring to, but I say, these cover-ass liability issues make it more difficult to do cutting edge, creative research that does not fit into 9-5 work ethics. I'd like to think that there are places where liability is not an issue. So people can work.

As for the rest, most of the safety rules are common sense and should be carefully observed. I've seen quite a number of accidents that occurred in broad daylight in labs full of people, only because someone got distracted.
8th-Aug-2014 02:23 pm (UTC)
I've worked in labs in a university that had all the procedures in place to stop people working through the night (and was meant to stop people from working on dangerous things out of 9-5 hours).

I've also worked in labs that where no one gave a shit about health and safety.

And eeeehhh... I'm now on the side of 'have the difficult annoying procedures in place'. When heath and safety isn't a big issue a lot more students and researchers are harmed. In the ideal case there would simply be more lab space so people wouldn't have to share so much -_-.
8th-Aug-2014 03:37 pm (UTC)
What do you mean by "other side"? H&S or a prof?

I walked both sides of the isle - student/prof... What I do now is look at the student. If I trust them not to do themselves harm, I will close my eyes on some of the regulations concerning working hours and such, and if I don't, I won't. Part of the trust comes from watching them not forget to put their safety glasses on (I've kicked people out of the lab for not having them on), not leaving unlabeled waste around, stuff like that.

But in a situation where a lot of equipment is shared, I can't enforce my policies all the way. The result is what I said in the other post.

I am for selective enforcement of the regulations. :)
11th-Aug-2014 12:59 pm (UTC)
i think you misread what i wrote. i said 'on the side of' not 'other side'.

i also agree that selective enforcement of regulations would be good.

i mean, i've got to admit that i have looked the other way too. like, i've come in on weekends to get work done in the cleanroom and students have been there who don't have permission to be there (i was part of the committee in charge of the lab). i could have chucked them out, got their access to the lab revoked, but i knew them and i knew they weren't going to be doing anything stupid.

i do think regulations get selectively enforced, but that does create problems when i then have to go kick up a fuss and ask for certain people to go through more training or have their cleanroom access revoked because they are a hazard to everything and everyone. cause then all the 'exceptions' we seem to be making come up. *headache*

it's a different story when it's one PI's own lab, then it's a bit easier. when it's some place like a large cleanroom or similar then it starts to get more tricky trying to make the exceptions.
11th-Aug-2014 11:38 pm (UTC)
"i also agree that selective enforcement of regulations would be good."

The whole "golden child" thing, of which selective enforcement is a small bit, really sucks to the non-golden.

It'd make for a far more equitable society, and be better for the success of the other students, if such "exceptions" based on trustworthiness were formalized so that anyone motivated enough (and with time enough) could jump through the hoops.

"i then have to go kick up a fuss and ask for certain people to go through more training or have their cleanroom access revoked because they are a hazard to everything and everyone. cause then all the 'exceptions' we seem to be making come up."

Everyone knows that if a police officer sees them speeding and pulls them over that they'll likely get a ticket, or get sent to court. Would it be that hard to write this sort of thing into the regulations? Then everyone could be the "exception" (after demonstrating training and trustworthiness) until they screw up - at which point they'll be sent for re-training or have their access revoked. And everyone would know this, and no real exceptions would have to be made.

Write enough "warnings" or slaps-on-the-wrist (which would be recorded) before revocation of privileges and even the tenderest of hearted professors wouldn't have to worry about overlooking things (unless a student has messed up *that* many times...but if they have then the tender hearted professor really does need to wise up, because the student is an accident waiting to happen).
12th-Aug-2014 12:47 am (UTC)
The problem with writing this kind of thing into the 'regulations' and why we have a committee to decide on these matters (that is, students possibly needing to be sent to extra training/swipe card access revoked and so on) on an individual basis is because there are dozens of different pieces of equipment in the lab, which someone can misuse or abuse in hundreds of different ways. You can't write such a comprehensive guide to cover all the bullshit students get up to. There could be a student who consistently does a hundred little minor things wrong that might not on their own warrant even mentioning, because then you'd be there all day writing this stuff down. Also, the students aren't always supervised at all times (plus, it's very often the post-docs who are complete screw ups, ehem), they're working independently. You can't penalize only those students who actually work within working hours when cleanroom committee members might happen to be in the lab too.

On the other side the issue with the hoops is that the paperwork gets to be endless for even relatively minor things. Someone wants to do a procedure in the cleanroom that I did unsupervised as a first year undergrad student... but then need to do it once, and once only, out of hours, because they need to minimize vibrations and can't have people walking around in the room. They're students, they've got deadlines to meet. And they need to do dozens of similar procedures that month possibly, where it's something really simply that you know they can do with a blindfold on and is not risky at all, but just something about it means that technically they need to fill out twenty forms and get those changes to their access agreed upon by a committee that only meets about once every two months... (and again, changes to access etc can't easily be regulated, because it's all so individual depending on the exact procedure and its risk, so it needs a group of people to discuss it, as there's no rules to follow).

So yeah, when you're faced with stuff like that, you just gotta let some stuff go, even when you also know you have to draw the line somewhere and with some people, sadly enough. Because you know they've messed up before, and you've seen them break stuff, pull on doors from containers that are under vacuum because they got their physics degree from who knows where and so on.

And so yeah, in terms of 'slaps on the wrist', we again just have to play that by how the committee view the issue at hand. Because it's not about the number of times people screw up, but what they screwed up on. Some screw ups just indicate that someone is totally incompetent and can't be trusted, even if the consequences might not have been bad - that time.

In an ideal world there would be more labs, safer labs, and more people being employed just to look after the labs and longer working hours and so on, but yeah... :/ . That's also not likely to happen anywhere really.

Edited at 2014-08-12 12:51 am (UTC)
12th-Aug-2014 01:10 am (UTC)
Yep, committees and paperwork suck.

"You can't write such a comprehensive guide to cover all the bullshit students get up to."

At my workplace we call them "PTA (pre-task analysis) cards". And yes, we're supposed to have them for every process (including sitting down on a lab stool and walking). Individuals from interns to scientists can write them, and then they are sent to EH&S for review and incorporation into the master book. People are supposed to periodically look at the PTA card master book and download, read, and periodically review every card relevant to what they work on. For every new-to-you process you're supposed to download the relevant PTA card, or write a new one up and submit it before doing the process.

With particularly dangerous processes I think you're supposed to read, sign, and date a hardcopy of the card each time before performing the process.

Any near miss or actual event may lead to a new PTA card getting written up, or the current one getting revised, if necessary.

None of this stops people who just don't care, but I recall that the relevant metrics have noticeably improved over the years.

What the heck, I'll shill for them: http://safety.dow.com/en
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