Recent weeks have seen a pair of developments that could focus and intensify the national discussion of academic lab safety. On 9 May, after many delays, University of California, Los Angeles, professor Patrick Harran was arraigned on felony charges arising from the 2009 death of lab assistant Sheri Sangji. A judge entered four not guilty pleas on Harran's behalf, setting the stage for the first-ever trial of a university lab chief on criminal safety charges. The judge is expected to decide in late June when the trial will begin.
Then, in a step that could have even broader ramifications than the unprecedented trial, on 15 May the National Academies held a public fact-finding meeting in Washington, D.C., kicking off a yearlong study of lab safety in nonindustrial institutions. Together, these events could transform the academic community's understanding of faculty and institutional responsibility for safety and provide high-profile proposals for improving universities' safety performance.
Entitled "Establishing and Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Laboratory Research," the National Academies study plans to focus on "laboratory safety in chemical research in non-industrial settings," according to its statement of scope, but its recommendations likely will be relevant to other disciplines as well. The committee will examine, among other issues, institutions' "current hierarchy of actors responsible for laboratory safety," which is considered by many experts to be a crucial factor in any organization's safety performance. The group plans to "examine knowledge from the behavioral sciences, and experience with safety systems from other sectors (such as industrial research facilities, nuclear energy, aviation and medical) for key attributes of successful safety systems and cultures," and "Use this to draw lessons that could be applied [to] non-industrial laboratory research."