Chemist burned in fatal accident, employer charged under labor code

A chemistry professor form University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), hired a woman as a research associate. In 2008, the woman was working on a chemical reaction that required the use of tert-Butyllithium (t-BuLi). The chemical has the tendency to ignite unexpectedly in air. In the course of her employment, the woman used a syringe to transfer quantities of t-BuLi.

All of sudden, a scream echoed throughout the building. The woman was on fire. By the time the fire dissipated, the woman's synthetic clothing had disintegrated, and she had large burn blisters on her stomach.

The woman received treatment for weeks; however, ultimately, her organs failed and she passed away a few days later. A physician later concluded that the worker experienced second-degree and third-degree trauma on nearly 50 percent of her body.

According to a report from workplace safety investigators in California, the accident was deemed preventable. Ultimately, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office charged the employer (professor) with several labor code violations.

Workers' compensation employer defense

Years after this incident, the case has rung throughout scientific and academic communities, spurring discussion over whether the professor was following appropriate protocol as an employer of the young woman. There is support that he was and support that he was not.

The attorneys for the professor assert that the accident resulted from the woman's own negligent actions. Specifically, she was a trained and experienced chemist, who had performed the experiment before with no problems. According to the professor, the death was simply an unfortunate accident.

The business that makes or manufactures t-BuLi provides instructions to users for the handling of the chemical. The provided information informs lab workers that up to 50 milliliters may be moved at a time with a needle that is between one or two feet. In this particular case, the chemist was moving 54 milliliters of the chemical with a small two-inch needle. Moreover, the safety information explained that the syringe be glass and used only for one transfer; however, the woman used the same plastic syringe for three different transfers.

At the local medical center, emergency personnel took the victim's statement before she passed away. She indicated that she removed the plunger too far off the syringe, and she had knocked down a flask filled with pentane, which is very flammable.

No one will dispute that workplace safety is especially important; however, even when appropriate safeguards are in place, accidents can still happen. This is true especially among occupations with inherent risks.

Workplace accidents are unfortunate and hard to overcome. Nevertheless, such incidents are not always the employer's fault. Of course, an injured employee (or his or her family) deserves to be compensated up to the amount to which he or she is entitled under the compensation system. On the other hand, an employer should not be liable for damages beyond what is appropriate - especially if an accident was an act of negligence unrelated to the employer's actions or inactions. If you need assistance in defending your workers' compensation claim, speak to a lawyer about the incident.