On the heels of Ben Elgin’s Business Week story yesterday about employers failing to comply with rules for reporting worker injuries, it appears large public sector employers have trouble obeying the law as well.  The LA Times is reporting that the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) failed to report to Cal-OSHA a serious burn injury that required a paid graduate research assistant to spend a week in the UCLA Medical Center’s burn unit.   (Under Cal-OSHA regulations, an employer must report to the agency within 8 hours any worker death or any worker injury requiring more than 24 hours of hospitalization.  Federal OSHA, in contrast, only requires injury reporting if 3 or more workers are hospitalized.)

In “Serious lab incident was not reported,” the LATimes journalist Kim Christensen, ties this revelation to the fatal injuries sustained by UCLA graduate research assistant Shari Sangji, 23.  Ms. Sangji died 18 days after suffering serious burns and injuries from a December 2008 explosion in a UCLA chemistry lab. 

The earlier unreported incident occurred in November 2007 and involved ethanol ignited by an open flame.  The employer—in this case UCLA — disputes (predictably) the Cal-OSHA findings of “repeat serious” violations for inadequate safety training, PPE and storage of chemicals.  In a written statement, UCLA Vice Chancellor of Legal Affairs Kevin Reed, said:

“We believe many of Cal/OSHA’s citations relate to previous compliance issues and do not reflect current operations and procedures, especially as they pertain to training.  We intend to vigorously fight these citations.”

This most recent violation had a proposed penalty totaling nearly $24,000, the LATimes reporter noted, on top of previously assessed $98,700 for citations related to Ms. Sangji’s death and other violations. 

The LATimes story offers more of the employer’s (UCLA’s) spin machine:

“Reed said Friday that he suspects that Cal/OSHA’s continued scrutiny of UCLA was driven by complaints by the union rather than the merits of the case.”

The labor organization Vice Chancellor Reed refers to is the UPTE (University Professional and Technical Employees), Communication Workers of America (CWA), Local 9119, AFL-CIO, which represent more than 11,000 workers in the University of California system.  The local has an active H&S committee who have been actively involved in these deadly lab safety disasters.

I’m not sure why the Vice Chancellor thinks the complaints of the union reps are irrelevant—-the OSH Act gives clear rights to worker reps and “encourages joint-labor-management efforts to reduce injuries and diseases arising out of employment.”  One would think the Vice Chancellor would welcome the persistence of the worker reps to ensure the UCLA labs are safe for all workers and students.  Both the now deceased Ms. Sangji’s and the other individual were both UCLA employees and students.

The hazards faced by laboratory employees can be as deadly as those encountered by workers on construction sites and industrial plants.  Just because lab workers wear white lab coats (or don’t, in at least these two UCLA cases) doesn’t mean the tasks are as harmless as cotton balls.   As we’ve written before workers in laboratory face unique and potentially dangerous hazards and employers have a duty to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for them.  

The situation for public sector laboratory workers is particularly precarious if they are employed in the following States: AL, AR, CO, DC, DE, FL, GA, ID, KS, LA, MA, ME, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NH, OH, OK, PA, RI, SD, TX, WI,  and WV.  They are not covered by the OSH Act, and do not have any guarantee to the protections and rights afforded by it.  The “Protecting America’s Workers Act” (S. 1580 and H.R. 2067) would correct this unfairness and ensure that 9 million workers have legally-binding OHS protections.  Had it not been for Cal-OSHA and its coverage of public sector workers, investigations into the death of Shari Sangji and this other UCLA lab tech would have not occurred at all.