How Compliance Equates to a Corporate Culture of Caring
Recent testimony from expert witnesses on compliance at a UCLA chemistry lab in a fire that killed a 23-year old staff research assistant serves as an important reminder that our corporate cultures should equate ‘compliance’ with ‘caring.’ Though imposed upon us by legislators and agencies, these requirements often originate from serious workplace events. And, while our employees may drag their heels a bit at the announcement of yet another SOP or training, it is up to us to impart a genuine philosophy that could help to save their lives.
Recent news about the UCLA case has unfolded over a period of about four years. In late December 2008, Ms. Sheri Sangji suffered severe burns when a lab experiment with tert-Butyllithium, an air-sensitive chemical, burst into flames and ignited her clothing. She was burned over 40% of her body and died several days later as a result of the injuries.
A 2008 internal inspection by UCLA had found a number of deficiencies in the lab. There was no university policy at the time relative to wearing protective eye, hand, or other body protective gear like lab coats. One newspaper article commented that fire-resistant lab coats were on order at a cost of $45.05/each.
In 2009, OSHA cited violations and issued a fine. It also issued a 95-page report that UCLA “permitted [Ms. Sangji] to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.” The state of California is prosecuting the supervisor for criminal charges in connection with a death of a worker, including a jail sentence.
In a 2008 interview with investigators, the supervisor said Ms. Sangji was an experienced chemist and that the event was otherwise her fault. He admitted, however, that Ms. Sangji had not received “generalized safety training,” saying, “I believe my assistant told me that it was not offered for her category per se, although we were going to follow-up on that.” He also admitted that no fire-resistant clothing was available to lab employees.
Adding to the reports was a 2007 incident of a different lab worker, burned when ethanol spilled near an open flame, and the researcher, who also was not wearing a lab coat, sustained burns to his hands and torso. The incident came to light during the 2008 OSHA investigation, including that UCLA had failed to report the incident, and OSHA cited UCLA for it.
As business leaders, we can take this tragic event and look at the OSHA regulations at 29 CFR 1910.1450 on occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories, and we have a choice. We can choose to say “Technically, this doesn’t apply to me,” or “It couldn’t happen here.” Or, we can choose to read through the subdivisions on pillars of an OSHA “Chemical Hygiene Plan” and read them as the gold standard for our business.
You don’t have to run a research laboratory to be subject to compliance statutes, regulations, and court rulings. You do have to recognize the value of compliance.