On December 27, 2011, the Los Angeles County District Attorney filed criminal charges against the University of California Regents (“Regents”) and a research professor in a case involving the death of a research assistant at the University of California Los Angeles (“UCLA”). The criminal charges against the professor and the Regents allege three counts, each, of willful violations of California occupational health and safety standards resulting in the death.
The Defendants are accused of having failed 1) to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely way, 2) to train employees, including the deceased research assistant, on proper chemical safety, and 3) to require the use of appropriate personal protective equipment in the laboratory. UCLA called the charges “outrageous” and “appalling”. The professor faces up to four and half years in prison, and UCLA could be fined up to $1.5 million dollars on each of the three counts. The criminal charges appear to be the first anywhere in the nation resulting from an accident in an academic laboratory.
The research assistant had taken a job in the professor’s laboratory while applying to law schools. In 2009, she was transferring a chemical from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe she was using in the process allegedly came apart in her hands. The chemical compound being transferred ignites when exposed to air and, when it did, her street clothing caught fire and melted onto her skin. She subsequently succumbed to her extensive burns.
In the several months before the research assistant’s accident, University safety inspectors reportedly had found more than a dozen health and safety standard violations in the professor’s laboratory, including failures to require protective lab coats and to store chemicals properly. But UCLA and the professor allegedly did not take any required corrective actions. California OSHA therefore cited the Regents for multiple alleged violations and proposed penalties totaling $31,875.
California’s Occupational Safety and Health Act provides for significant criminal remedies against both employers and individuals for violations of California health and safety standards, and Southern California’s District Attorneys are aggressive in prosecuting employers and individuals under the Act.
The criminal cases in California are a reminder to colleges and universalities around the country that they are subject, as employers, to federal and state occupational safety and health laws. In states in which federal OSHA has jurisdiction, only private institutions are subject to citation by OSHA and prosecution under the federal OSHAct in cases of willful violations leading to fatalities (though private and public higher educational institutions can be prosecuted for state criminal offenses related to occupational safety and health under state criminal laws). In many states with “state OSHA plan,” like California, both private and public institutions are subject to citation and criminal prosecution under the states’ plans.
In all states, employers face significant civil and criminal penalties for violation of the federal OSHAct and its state equivalents, including possible individual criminal liability. Employers should regularly review their workplace safety policies, as well as their actual practices. Unfortunately, cases like this UCLA fatality serve as periodic reminders of the importance of workplace safety review.