Where does the responsibility lie?

Many answers have been sought for this question following a tragic incident at UCLA, where in 2008 a 23 year-old research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji died following a preventable accident in the lab. As she was transferring a syringe of reactive tert-butyllithium from one sealed container to another the air-sensitive substance ignited. Sheri was not wearing a protective lab coat and suffered extensive third-degree burns. She died in hospital, 18 days later.

The answer to this is simple but it’s definitely not easy – it lies with everyone.  The basics we all know:  the employer, i.e. the University, is responsible for providing a safe working environment and we all have the responsibility to keep ourselves safe and not cause harm to others. How is this achieved in a laboratory environment? The actual demonstration of safe work practices can be variable and relies on a number of factors including the culture of the group in question as well as the type of leadership shown by senior staff. Guidance for researchers is available from multiple sources– but how easy is it to find or how much value is placed on this? There are also lot of external legislative requirements to comprehend and consider. The simple part of the equation anyone can focus on is: What work are YOU doing? What are the risks involved to yourself, your team and your institution? Have you been sufficiently inducted and trained to carry out the work in a safe and informed way? There is a lot to be said for self responsibility - if you are not clear about what is required to do your work safely, stop and find out before you carry on in the dark. If you supervise others less experienced, you are responsible for informing them of the risks, ensuring that they are appropriately trained, supervised and performing research that is suited to their level of experience.

Sadly, the implications of choosing not to conduct responsible research aren’t hypothetical; sometimes they’re real. Sheri Sangji has tragically died. Her supervisor Professor Patrick Harran now faces trial for violating health and safety policies causing her death.  UCLA has also accepted responsibility for the safety conditions which lead to Sheri’s death and now tightened its safety policies and improved its training.

The responsibility lies with each of us.

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Lisa Van Duin