I am writing these lines on 16 January 2010 and thinking of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji. The 23-year-old University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), laboratory technician died exactly a year ago today of the burns she suffered in an explosion while working in late December 2008 in the lab of Patrick Harran, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry. The intervening months have brought some progress -- but not nearly enough -- on the issue of safety in academic labs. This sad anniversary seems an appropriate time for another look at a matter of literally vital importance to everyone who labors in a school, college, or university lab in the United States.
Recent developments and non-developments in another story of interest to this column -- and that also comes out of UC -- makes this a doubly propitious time for second looks. That story is the negotiations, more than 50 sessions so far, for the first labor contract between the UC postdoc union, the nation's second
I wish I could report that Sangji's needless death inspired a national drive among universities and professors to create what safety experts call a strong "culture of safety" in labs everywhere. But that hasn't happened. Regarding the legalities of the case concerning Sangji, early January brought the news that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which had earlier cited and fined UCLA for "serious" safety violations, sent its report to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office for determination of whether criminal prosecution is warranted. This action, routine in such situations, carries no implication of guilt. Conviction under California's labor code can bring substantial fines and imprisonment.
On the national scene, meanwhile, despite remedial steps at UCLA and some other universities and attention to the issue in scientific meetings and publications, the toll of academic lab accidents mounts. On 7 January, graduate student Preston Brown, 29, was critically injured in a lab explosion at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
Shortly afterward, the United States Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal investigative agency headquartered in Washington, D.C., determined for the first time to examine the entire question of safety in academic labs. "Historically, we investigate major industrial accidents, oil refinery explosions, chemical plant explosions, [and] gas releases," CSB Chair John Bresland tells Science Careers in an interview.
"On a regular basis," Bresland continues, "we see accidents in chemistry labs as well, mainly academic, high schools, or universities," including, of course, the UCLA fatality. "They've always piqued our interest, but we've never [before] decided to look at them." But after the Texas Tech event, "we decided we ... would start gathering information on these incidents in a more detailed way instead of just receiving the information in our database." CSB's Denver office will spearhead an investigation of the Lubbock incident. "We've written a letter to the university. We've requested certain information. ... At the appropriate time, [we'll] make a visit to the university." Should any other such incidents occur before the end of the fiscal year, the agency intends to monitor them, too. "Then, next fiscal year, starting October first, if we have enough information, we'll do a study of the issue and hopefully come up with some recommendations."
Other major organizations, including the American Chemical Society and the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technologies of the National Academies, are also showing renewed interested in the safety issue, he adds. Work is under way, for example, on an update of the Academies' book Prudent Practices in the Laboratory . "There appears to be a wide variation in the level of safety culture" in different labs and campuses, Bresland notes. "We need to gather information [and] figure out what needs to be done. Then we can use the communication tools that we have ... videos, news releases, press conferences, and get out there with a good message."
Something much more hopeful also happened in December 2008 -- the start of contract talks between UC and PRO/UAW, the union that had won certification the preceding month to represent the more than 5000 postdocs on UC's 10 campuses. The two sides have agreed on a number of issues, according to the union's Web site. They are at an impasse, however, on postdoc pay.
The union seeks cost-of-living raises as well as step increases like those in National Institutes of Health fellowships. The university argues that its present financial situation makes these impossible. "The union would like guaranteed wage increases, and we have to make sure we can support those kinds of built-in increases," says Dwaine Duckett, UC's vice president for human resources, by e-mail. "The latest proposals simply ask for more than we think we can afford, especially at a time when we're facing severe funding shortfalls from the state, and executing various operational cuts, layoffs, and furloughs."
The fact that postdoc pay generally comes not from state money but from research grants makes the university's argument spurious, counters UC Berkeley biochemistry postdoc Matthew "Oki" O'Connor, a member of the union negotiating team. The team is "working to educate people about the fact that the university is hiding behind the state budget crisis to pretend that there's no money," he adds, citing a December 2009 informational picket on all 10 UC campuses staged in collaboration with UPTE-CWA 9119, the union that represents lab technicians and other technical employees and faces similar issues in its own contract negations. UPTE, by the way, has cited Sangji in support of its proposal for stronger safety measures.
"In many, many labs, additional money has been pouring in because of the [federal] stimulus," O'Connor says. Even during the near-collapse of the state's finances, the university's research income is rising, not falling. A December statement by UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi corroborates O'Connor's claim, for the Davis campus at least. "Despite the difficult budget situation," the chancellor announced in a statement, her campus is on a "steep upward curve -- doubling our research income in less than a decade" and reaching "a new high" of over half a billion dollars a year. "We can transform our research enterprise and bring this total to 900 million or even a billion dollars a year," Katehi continued. By mid-January, the University of California system had won nearly 800 stimulus-funded grants from the National Institutes of Health
Yet "there are a variety of costs that are not always accounted for or that do not have a dollar-for-dollar relationship to actual costs in these grants," Duckett replies. "Facilities, administrative costs, energy costs, etc. are covered at a predetermined rate but not always matched one to one. The wage increases the UAW has asked for cut things too close -- they risk us over-committing. ... Also, the postdocs work on individual grants, but the union is requiring across-the-board increases not tied to individual grants. We continue to work to find ways to reach settlement, but more flexibility ... is needed," he adds.
The union has been "quite flexible," O'Connor says, but the postdocs are "getting impatient" with the "ridiculously long" wait for a contract. But how long should they expect it to take? The first contract ever negotiated between a postdoc union and a university, at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington, took 7 months from the union's certification to the pact's ratification and noticeably improved postdocs' working conditions and incomes. The UCHC postdocs, however, joined a long-established union that already covered hundreds of other university employees; their contract was an add-on to an existing pact. PRO/UAW is a brand-new entity seeking a first-ever contract for a category of workers never before unionized in the state. There doesn't appear to be any single norm for reaching agreement on the first pact between a union and an employer, and studies indicate that a year or more is not unusual even in normal times.
And these are hardly normal times considering the turbulent finances of California or of science in general. Clearly, mandating raises for one category of employees while furloughing and even laying off others would strike many as inequitable. The overall future of research funding does not appear especially bright at present. President Barack Obama's budget proposal calls for increases in some fields of science, but in the wake of the stimulus bonanza, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), by far the largest supplier of grants that support postdocs, essentially returns to pre-stimulus funding levels with increases that cover only inflation. In addition, NIH Director Francis Collins has suggested that universities carry more of the financial burden in the future.
But the insecurity argument cuts two ways. Unlike many public employees, postdocs generally lack job security beyond the funding of the particular lab where they work. If they must bear the risk when that disappears, should they not be entitled to enjoy the benefit when it is plentiful?
Whatever the sides ultimately agree on, for many UC postdocs the wait is a major frustration. Months ago, over 3700 of them signed an open letter to UC President Mark Yudof calling for speedy negotiations. More than 90% of the union members have voted to authorize an unfair labor practices strike should one ever become necessary. No such plans exist at present, O'Connor says.
Further developments are clearly forthcoming involving both lab safety and the UC contract. This column will keep you apprised as they happen.
Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, DC.