We may soon find out.
Shortly before the end of 2011, the State of California issued a Felony Complaint against the U.C.L.A. Board of Regents and Patrick Harran, director of the lab were a 23 year old researcher died as a result of serious burns from a lab accident. It appears to be the first such felony prosecution in the U.S., where the specific crime charged was willful violation of occupational safety regulations.
Janet Stemwendel does her usual fine job of crystallizing the ethical issues involved over at Doing Good Science. While the university and the lab director are the ones facing the court (Harran could serve up to 4.5 years in prison, and UCLA may be fined up to $4.5 million), they are not the only ones with responsibilities to help keep themselves and their colleagues safe. But since the crime focused on the responsibilities of employers, the conversation prompted by this case may be unduly restricted to universities and lab directors.
The accident was in 2008, and the university has already been fined (but just $70,000) and made changes to its lab safety policies. So in the instance of this university, death prompted the changes. That’s way too high a price, of course, but with other instances of lab injuries and death, I would not blame those who might think university research labs bore some resemblance to 19th century factories or modern sweatshops.
While I can see the merit in seeking more serious punishment, there is a risk. The allegations are of willful violation of the standards. This requires more proof than a standard negligence case. As the District Attorney waited until the very last days to file (the statute of limitations was running out), demonstrating willfulness may be a challenge.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, I would hope that the possibility of jail time or million-dollar fines for universities and researchers will prompt all universities to revisit and improve their lab safety procedures and the training they give their students, faculty and staff in how to keep everyone safe.