What Difference Does 5 Years Make?

On 29 December, the world of academic science will pass a mournful milestone: the fifth anniversary of the needless fire in the lab of University of California, Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran that caused the death of 23-year-old lab assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji. At the time, you may recall, observers expressed both dismay at the shoddy safety practices prevalent in academic labs across the country and hope that Sangji’s death would lead to change.

Have those hopes been realized? At the institutional level, many significant steps have taken place. The University of California has instituted sweeping reforms in response to a settlement of state criminal charges in the Sangji case. It also established a Center for Laboratory Safety “to improve the practice of laboratory safety through the performance of scientific research and implementation of best safety practices in the laboratory,” according to the center’s website. The American Chemical Society and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have issued strong and probing reports on the urgent need to enhance safety standards in academic labs across the country.

“It’s all fun and games until someone burns.”—tallyrand, on Reddit

Since Sangji’s death, however, other serious and preventable lab mishaps have occurred, most notably the 2011 strangulation death of 22-year-old Yale University physics student Michele Dufault. The state criminal case against Harran on felony charges arising from Sangji’s death has not yet reached trial, with the next step in the long-running legal saga tentatively scheduled for early January.

But perhaps most discouraging as the doleful anniversary approaches is recent evidence garnered by Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News, a Twitter discussion initiated by the blogger Chemjobber, and postings in Reddit’s chemistry section that, though some university labs strongly enforce safety standards, others still do not, allowing elementary violations of basic safety principles. In such places, “It’s all fun and games until someone burns,” according to the harsh but clear-eyed warning of Reddit poster tallyrand.

Here’s hoping that tallyrand’s prediction never again comes to pass and that the new year brings increased awareness of safety in the nation’s academic labs and safe working conditions for academic scientists everywhere.

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