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May 22, 2009
There's an article up at Slate on the UCLA lab accident death. It finishes up by saying:
If Sheri Sangji's death is to mean anything, it must be that no lab chief—and certainly no federal agency—claiming to further human welfare ever again tolerates the risk of harm to lab workers. That means that university administrators from the provost on down must make safety a serious concern and a requirement for career advancement and hiring, and tenure and promotion committees must hold faculty members responsible for seeing that everyone in their labs has the training, skills, and equipment needed to work safely. Funding agencies must make a good safety record and evidence of safety awareness real conditions for getting and keeping grants. Never again should academic research needlessly claim the life of a researcher.
Brave words, but I feel pretty sure that academic research will, in fact, needlessly claim more lives every so often. You've got a lot of people at widely varying levels of experience (and widely varying levels of sense), working all hours of the day and night, often under pressure to produce results. Accidents will happen.
Now, I think that academic labs could be a lot safer than they are, and that they should be. It's worth taking steps to try to realize that. But if you set the standard as "never again should anything bad happen", you will fail. I've worked in an industrial environment that implemented the fiercest, most draconian safety policy I've ever experienced. Multiple, overlapping layers of safety meetings, with an extensive standardized list of topics that had to be covered every time. Incident reports, discussed in detail, every time. Attendance mandatory, and logged on a signup sheet, and tied to bonus payouts. Multiple, overlapping layers of documentation, countersignatures, standard operating procedures, etc. And we still had explosions, due to varying amounts of cluelessness, stupidity, and just plain bad luck.
They will happen. They should be minimized, prepared for, and guarded against. But acting as if there's a policy which will prevent them is foolish, and risks making the perfect the enemy of the good.
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