January 2009, a lab accident resulted in the death of a lab tech. She and the postdocs who came to her aid were poorly trained to cope with accidents, and her university, UCLA, and the primary investigator, Dr. Harran, are facing criminal charges for willful negligence. This is a landmark case because it could change the way science is done.
Whether the outcome is in favor of UCLA and Dr. Harran or not, there is potential here for major change throughout academia. The case will probably come to plea bargain, and Dr. Harran and UCLA probably won’t experience in jail time.
Dr. Harran’s defense is that he was acting like any other professor would act. That is true. My opinion is that does not exonerate him. It exposes an enormous employee safety gap. Academia sorely needs to be held accountable in its labor transgressions. Safety is perhaps its most egregious violation. Paying its administrators ridiculously large salaries while paying adjuncts a pittance is another labor violation. Sheri Sangji’s death will be a wake up call to universities and professors for safety procedures, but not for the exploitation of adjuncts, postdocs, and grad students.
UCLA, and other universities, haven’t yet reacted to the wake up call by implementing more rigorous safety oversights. Individual professors would be well advised to do anything in their power to change how they operate. Not only will that save the lives of their lab personnel and protect the professor herself in the event of a tragedy like Sangji’s, but it will also prevent others like Dr. Harran from using the excuse, “This is what all the professors are (not) doing.”