On January 16, 2009, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) lab technician Sherharbano "Sheri" Sangji died of burns she had sustained over 2 weeks earlier from a fire in the lab of Prof. Patrick Harran. Yesterday, UCLA announced
the creation of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety. "Believed to be the first of its kind in the country," the center will do research on ways to improve safety in laboratories, at universities and other organizations, says the UCLA press release.
In 2009, the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety cited and fined
UCLA for "serious" safety violations in the fatal incident, including failing to provide appropriate training and protective attire. Since then, UCLA has reformed its safety practices.
The new center "fills an important gap" in knowledge about what safety regulations work, says Nancy Wayne, UCLA's associate vice chancellor for research, in a video that accompanies the release. The center's goals, she says, are to support research in lab safety, develop best practices based that knowledge that can be applied at UCLA and the other University of California campuses, and provide information to help other universities and organizations improve their safety practices.
The press release, which alludes to Sangji's death but mentions neither her name nor the circumstances that led to the needless fatality, cites the importance of empirical data in improving standards. Wayne, in the video, also mentions the importance of getting principal investigators to understand why lab-safety standards are important.
For lab chiefs in industry, that question does not arise. They generally know from the outset of their employment that a serious safety incident will mean major harm to their careers. This is not the case in academe, where powerful PIs who bring their universities large grants generally operate with much impunity.
With $400,000 in initial funding from offices of UCLA's chancellor and the University of California's president, the center will seek grant funding to support research. But will it be able to bring real change to what many safety experts believe is a deep-seated cultural problem on campuses?
Without doubt, the center will endeavor to produce and publish findings with the potential to increase safety. But real change will not come unless the academic culture also changes to make protection of the people working in labs a truly top priority, alongside publications and grants. Accomplishing that will require new incentives and serious buy-in from university administrators and research funders. If the new center can help encourage that, it will be valuable indeed.