Experts say conditions that led to professor?s death exist at other schools
By John Dudley Miller | March 7, 2006
The state of Ohio has issued seven citations to Cleveland State University (CSU) for unsafe electrical conditions in the lab where associate professor Tarun Mal died last August after plugging in a defective fluorescent light through a two-prong adapter plug that left the lamp ungrounded. Experts say that the conditions that led to Mal?s death were indeed unsafe, and some believe those problems are not uncommon at other American universities, suggesting other lab workers may also be at risk.
Jim Kaufman, CEO of the Lab Safety Institute, told The Scientist that the problem that killed Mal -- using a two-prong adapter in a three-prong outlet -- is common. ?When you inspect labs,? he said, ?it?s not unusual to find anywhere from one to seven that way.?
Jim Barnhardt, an economist at the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, told The Scientist that because deaths in labs aren?t tracked separately from other accidents, it is impossible to know how often other universities suffer similar electrocutions or receive comparable safety citations. However, The Scientist found reports of two electrocutions involving graduate students in American university labs in the past 40 years. One biology student died at Brown University in 1966 while using a gel electrophoresis unit, while an MIT physics student died in 1972 while making electrical adjustments on a gas laser that required the machine to be operating.
At CSU, Mal plugged a three-prong (grounded) plug into the wall socket using a two-prong adapter connected to a two-prong electrical timer that controlled how much light plants under the lamp received, according to a November 17 report by Ohio?s Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC). He thus interrupted the emergency electrical path to ground from the metal exterior of the lamp, which he didn?t realize was electrified, the report said.
?If he would have bought a grounded timer and not put a cheater [2-prong adapter] on that grounded plug, this wouldn?t have happened,? Ralph Dolence, a forensic investigator hired by the local coroner to investigate the accident, told The Scientist. ?It would have tripped the [circuit] breaker,? he said, cutting off all electricity to the lamp.
The November BWC report cited CSU for seven electrical problems in Mal?s lab, including three not involved in the accident -- a broken ground plug on a centrifuge, a missing metal cover on a switch, and extension cords used instead of permanent wiring. An eighth citation said the lab was infected with cockroaches. CSU has fixed all the problems except instituting an electrical training program, according to a BWC spokesman.
A Cleveland State spokesman declined to answer a list of questions The Scientist submitted or to provide access to the lab.
Four of the seven University environmental safety experts who spoke to The Scientist said they believe the use of a two-prong adapter for a three-prong outlet, the condition that contributed to Mal?s death, is not uncommon in US university labs. (Only one expert believed this was a rare occurrence.) The vast majority of interviewed experts said that two of the three citations that were unrelated to Mal?s death are routinely found in US academic labs. Peter Bochnak of MIT, for instance, said ?using extension cords in lieu of permanent wiring? is the most common problem he sees. Labs are often home to broken off ground plugs, experts noted, and these common safety lapses can put lab workers at significant risk.
One of the seven experts, Robin Izzo of Princeton University, faulted Mal for utilizing a used fluorescent lamp instead of buying a new one. ?I know of plenty of labs that will only use brand-new things,? she told The Scientist, and it was ?ridiculous? of Mal to use used equipment. However, Dolence defended Mal on this point, saying the scientist had rewired the lamp properly before he used it.
Mal, whose research focused on the invasive plant species purple loose-strife was enormously popular in his department, according to a eulogy written by a colleague who praised ?the explosive energy that hung about him.? He left a wife, who is a CSU lecturer, and a daughter who is now 10. He was 42.
John Dudley Miller
Links within this article
A. McCook, ?Million dollar mislabel,? The Scientist, April 11, 2005.
Lab Safety Institute
Fatality Report No. 050708F, Ohio Bureau of Workers? Compensationhttp://www.ohiobwc.com/home/current/releases/2006/CSReport.pdf
IU Sikder, ?Knowledge-based risk assessment under uncertainty for species invasion,? Risk Analysis, February 2006.
Eulogy for Tarun K. Mal, in Minutes of the meeting of the faculty senate, Cleveland State University, September 14, 2005
This year’s controversial news included unethical behavior among politicians, a murder, and multiple accusations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, in addition to the usual spate of research misconduct.