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Developments in the case of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji’s death at UCLA in 2009 have been dominating the chemistry news for the last week or so. With the University of California and Sangji’s supervisor Patrick Harran facing criminal charges relating to their management of their health and safety obligations.
The detailed twists and turns of the case have been doggedly covered by Jyllian Kemsley over at Chemical & Engineering News, and debate online over where responsibility lies and what the problems were has been voracious.
Sangji’s is the most serious of a series of high-profile incidents, including explosions at the University of Liverpool, UK, and one at Texas Tech University, US, where a student lost three fingers and perforated an eye among a list of other injuries. This prompted the US Chemical Safety Board to investigate the incident and their report paints a stark picture of safety at TTU (which by all accounts has improved significantly since). The case study also includes anecdotal evidence from 120 other incidents, suggesting a more widespread issue.
Here at Chemistry World, we wanted to examine what it takes to make laboratory environments safer, and what differences there are between the US and the UK and elsewhere. You can read my story here, but we wanted to take the opportunity to ask you, our readers, what you think:
What is the safety culture like in your institution, or others you’ve worked in?
Has anything changed since these incidents? Do you think it will?
Having spent a few years in a synthetic chemistry lab myself, as well as stints in industry, I’ve come across my fair share of minor incidents, both at my own bench and at colleagues’. I also saw the difference between attitudes to safety at two UK universities. Personally, I hope that our laboratories can become safer places to work, but there are not going to be any quick fixes. We all need to take responsibility for safety – after all, understanding safety comes down to understanding chemistry. If you know the risks involved with what you’re doing, you can take steps to manage them, just like when you drive a car or cross a road.
One of the clearest messages that came back to me from talking to several health and safety professionals in researching my story was that no one wants to stop anyone doing research. If it’s done right, health and safety management should enable researchers to do the work they need to, but in an appropriate environment. So again, let us know what you think – does this happen where you are?