April 26, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Earlier this month, Yale University student Michele Dufault was killed by lathe equipment at the school’s chemistry lab. It appears that she was working alone late at night and her hair got tangled in the machine. Richard Van Noorden of Nature News puts the tragedy in context:

Around the United States, laboratory directors and safety officers immediately checked their own policies on working practices in machine shops. But the accident has also heightened wider concerns about the ever-present tension between research freedom and safe working conditions in academia. And it underscores the slow pace of change since another high-profile laboratory fatality led to similar soul-searching less than three years ago.

In late 2008, 23-year-old research assistant Sheharbano Sangji sustained horrific burns in a lab fire at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and died of her injuries 18 days later. Sangji’s death — in very different circumstances from Dufault’s — resulted in federal fines for the university and a rapid toughening of safety policies there. On 30 March, UCLA unveiled its latest safety initiative: a new Center for Laboratory Safety, which is billed as the first in the United States to measure the effectiveness of safety policies and develop ways to improve scientists’ approach to safety. More widely, Sangji’s accident acted as a lightning rod for demands to improve standards across the United States.

Yet for all this attention, health and safety experts say that they have not seen a significant shift in the behaviour of bench scientists or the attitudes of lab heads, who are in the best position to improve safety culture.

Van Noorden notes that while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that rate of recordable incidents in scientific R&D services fell between 2003 and 2009, the government “does not track major accidents or near misses specifically in laboratories.” Academic settings are more likely to have graduate students who sometimes work alone in laboratories. And a professor who serves on the board of UCLA’s lab safety center has seen resistance from some professors who sometimes see “environmental inspectors as ‘police’ rather than partners in improving standards.”

In other news:

NPR: Many of the “liquidators” who fought fires and did cleanup work at the Chernobyl disaster have developed cancers and blood disorders – and many of them are fighting to get the government to pay for their treatment.

CNN: The families of the 11 workers killed in the BP/Deepwater Horizon explosion aren’t the only ones grieving over the disaster’s impacts. Some of the workers who survived the blast suffer from an array of mental-health issues, and their families struggle to adjust to the new reality.

Toronto Star: Researchers studied migrant laborers working on Canadian farms and found them suffering multiple health problems due to overcrowded housing, grueling 12-hour days, stress, and a lack of knowledge of their right to health care.

New York Times: At least 15 million US workers work late at night, fighting to stave off fatigue.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: By the end of 2010, 26 states had passed laws that completely prohibit smoking in private-sector worksites, restaurants, and bars, and another seven had passed laws prohibiting smoking at worksites.

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