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California indictment brings lab workplace accidents to light

Chemists from all over the world clamor over each other to work in the labs in California's premiere universities. The allure of the freedom to research and create things that may someday change the world draws thousands of applications each year, but that freedom can be a double edged sword. What these chemists may fail to remember is that there are real dangers when working in a research lab and workplace accidents can happen.

Shortly after Christmas in 2008, one researcher at UCLA paid the ultimate price for her research. While performing an experiment, the researcher was using a syringe to transfer a volatile chemical that is not supposed to be exposed to air, when she accidentally pulled the plunger out of the syringe igniting the chemical. The researcher was severely burned and died 18 days later. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, began an investigation into her death and eventually found the lab seriously lacking in safety.

In this case, not only was the researcher not properly trained how to handle the chemical, but she also was not given the proper safety equipment. Cal/OSHA fined the university and ordered them to implement safety procedures and conduct training. In addition, in an unprecedented move, the university regents and the head of the lab were criminally charged in her death. The university regents have come to an agreement with the District Attorney's Office, but the head of the lab is still facing charges.

Workplace accidents can have devastating consequences, as this case illustrates. Proper safety training and equipment is the right of every worker in California. When the proper safety training and equipment are not provided, the company should be held accountable. Those affected, including the surviving family of a work injury fatality, may wish to assess their rights under state law , including the right to pursue workers' compensation death benefits to lessen the financial burden of such a sudden and seemingly inexplicable loss.

Source: California Watch, "UCLA researcher's death draws scrutiny to lab safety," Jim Morris, July 26, 2012

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