Federal Lab Safety Rules Cover Employees, but Not Students

June 27, 1993|By ANN LOLORDO

It was a common laboratory procedure with an unexpectedreaction: A chemistry experiment at Columbia University ended in an explosion that left a post-doctoral researcher hospitalized with serious burns.

When federal officials investigated the accident last fall, they determined that "intrinsically" unsafe lab equipment had been used.

Earlier this year, Bogdan Dabrowski, a Polish graduate student, was working on a project for his adviser in a Johns Hopkins University research lab when an explosion there nearly cost him his eyesight.

Neither federal nor state safety officials have investigated the accident or conditions in the lab. And no independent agency apparently ever will.

The two accidents with two different outcomes at two prestigious universities illustrate the gaps in regulatory oversight academic laboratories for physics, biology and chemistry where research assistants and students work with potentially dangerous substances and other materials in pursuit of science.

Researchers work in an environment in which no one regulatory agency has sole authority and federal rules apply to employees but not students, even though many graduate students are paid for the work they do.

While federal officials have authority over job-related accidents in most locales, 25 states have chosen to develop their own regulatory programs.

And even when federal officials are the investigators, they only have jurisdiction over private schools, not public institutions or state and local governments.

(A bill pending in Congress would give OSHA jurisdiction over state and local governments).

As a result, the rules designed to ensure a safe, healthy workplace are enforced in a disparate manner and can vary from state to state and from lab to lab.

"We don't have nearly the kinds of enforcement that should be really going on," says Jay A. Young, a chemical safety consultant from Silver Spring and author of a 1987 text on chemistry lab safety.

While the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets the standards for safe working conditions in laboratories, ensuring that academic institutions meet those guidelines is not a high priority for the agency.

OSHA -- staffed by 2,411 to oversee a national work force of 100 million -- contends that the academic laboratory is not "a high hazard" industry, a designation based on the number of workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses.

By comparison, construction sites, sawmills and meat processing plants rank among the most hazardous places to work.

Three years ago, OSHA adopted a safety standard whose main feature required institutions with labs to develop a "chemical hygiene plan."

The plan, aimed at reducing hazards to workers, must include lab operating procedures, training, protections for work with toxic substances and equipment standards.

Since the lab safety standard was adopted in May 1990, OSHA has cited 486 establishments, including health and pharmaceutical firms, chemical companies and photography studios, for violations of the standard.

Of those, 22 -- or about 5 percent -- were universities and colleges, according to agency data.

But some safety professionals and consultants argue that current data doesn't adequately reflect conditions in academic labs or a school's compliance with federal regulations.

While academic institutions must report to OSHA any job-related fatality or injury to an employee that requires hospitalization, no system tracks incidents involving students. In those cases, schools and their safety staffs investigate the accidents -- and themselves.

"There are numerous universities and colleges which are not following the OSHA or corresponding state regulations," says Mr. Young, the Silver Spring consultant and former chemistry professor. "The reason is pretty obvious -- many professors are prima donnas, and they won't allow anybody to tell them what to do."

Academics bristle at such characterizations. They argue that lab safety programs predate the OSHA lab standard and don't discriminate -- safety precautions protect employee, student and professor alike.

They contend that the federal standard mandates a level of safety to which professionals who work with hazardous chemicals already adhere.

"It's essentially what you should be doing even if you didn't have standards," adds Robert Varnerin, the director of safety and environmental health at Boston University. "Safety is a process, not a goal achieved. I, for one, would not fight for more regulation. I would fight for more performance. Unfortunately, you have to goad performance with regulation."

Adds Craig Lowry, of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health unit: "Providing a higher degree of safety for those engaged in occupations provides for a safety environment for the public and students as well."

The Sept. 12, 1992 accident at Columbia illustrates the power of regulation -- how, after a visit by an OSHA inspector, safety conditions in a laboratory can improve.

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