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University Laboratory Safety Premises Liability

Discussion in 'Accidents, Injuries, Negligence' started by concernedchemgrad, Sep 25, 2016.

  1. concernedchemgrad

    concernedchemgrad Law Topic Starter Guest

    I am a student at a public university in Colorado.
    Currently, I feel there are some issues that compromise student safety at the school.
    While the university allows faculty to take time off for illness and other medical issues, many classes have policies in place that greatly penalize students for missing a class for those same reasons. The school allows students to take time off and do make up work when it is for athletics, but do not allow students to make up work for illness. Missing a single day of class due to illness can in some cases causes students to lose 25% of their grade for a course, so there is a lot of pressure to attend classes in any situation.
    While for some cases, coming to class sick might just increase the chances of other students getting sick, there are many course on campus that are not simply lecture. These courses can involve working with heavy machinery, power tools, high voltage, and hazardous chemicals.
    While I have concerns regarding policy in all courses of this nature, my recent experiences regard the chemistry laboratories on campus.
    I am sure every class is unique, but thus far, I have not been impressed by the safety of the chemistry labs on campus I have been in over the course of several years. Every chemistry laboratory I have participated in was taught by a TA who was in charge of supervising the laboratory and enforcing lab safety. Over the years I have seen these TAs pick and choose which safety policies they enforce. All the labs require proper attire, and require students to take measures to avoid contaminating objects they might use outside the lab, however I have often seen students participating in labs without proper PPE (including one student who came to class wearing tights and a midriff top) when policy states that students without proper attire cannot participate in the labs. I have also seen the TAs encouraging students to use their phones in the lab, when lab policy also forbids this, due to the risk of chemical contamination. TAs for the course often do not seem to even be familiar with the experimental procedures they are supposed to be teaching.
    The courses require students to write up lengthy reports on that include well-researched safety measures for the chemicals and equipment they handle before even entering the lab, so I, as well as other students, should be well aware of the safety precautions they should be taking. In spite of having to write up a section saying what safety measures they will be taking in the lab, students are often put in a situation where they cannot follow the safety precautions they have just been required to say they will follow in their report. Often this is due to overcrowding, short lab periods, and lack of the school providing PPE. Needless to say, there are many safety concerns that are overlooked by choice on the part of the school.
    While it would seem to be common sense to try to limit the safety hazards already present by not allowing students to participate in labs when they are mentally incapacitated, I have seen students come to the labs drunk and stoned (weed is now legal in this area), barely able to stand, let alone handle hazardous materials. In these situations chemicals get mishandled, glassware gets broken, and equipment gets misused. This increases risk for both the student who shouldn't be participating and every other student in the lab, but is still allowed by the TAs.
    As the school is not making an effort to preserve the health and safety of students in their laboratories, it is up to students to take measures to protect themselves. As a student, I feel that part of this involves making the decision to not participate in labs when participation would endanger myself and other students. I personally think that sick students should avoid attending classes when possible, simply to avoid getting other people sick, but it becomes a much more serious issue when that illness, or medication the student is taking for that illness serious impedes their capacity to function safely in a lab. There are numerous medications that are frequently taken by ill students that actually advise on the label not to drive or operate heavy equipment while taking the medication. I think it should go without saying that if you are experiencing side effects from these medications, it really isn't a good idea to spend three straight hours handling toxic and corrosive chemicals either. Similarly, I think students experiencing like incapacitating effects from illness alone should not participate in the lab, as it greatly increases the risk for the student and the people around them.
    I believe there are avoidable situations involving substances where students are responsible for their actions, and, should they miss class, make up policies should be at the discretion of the instructor, but in situations of unexpected illness, I feel that students should be allowed to miss a lab and make up the work, if attending the lab in their current state would put them at great risk. I feel that current policies that allow staff members to take time off for illness, but do not allow students to do the same are unethical and coercive, as they force students to risk their safety and the safety of other people for the sake of a grade.
    I would like to work on getting the school to change their policy regarding students being unable to make up work for missed classes due to illness, and encourage the school to enforce other laboratory safety policies better, to protect the students and staff in their buildings.
    I am unsure what legal responsibilities the school has regarding safety in these situations. If someone is able to help me, I would like more information on this, and information on how to go about changing the school policies if possible.

    The current situation reminds me of a policy that was in place in the school psychology department several years ago, which required students to participate in supposedly voluntary human research studies run by the department in order to pass their classes. This policy has since been changed.
  2. Highwayman

    Highwayman Well-Known Member

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    Perhaps the first and easiest step is to contact the student government and see if they can effect needed change. Individual students probably won't get far.

    You can also try to contact your state Education Department (whatever it may be called in your state) and find out what, if any, regulations exist.
  3. ElleMD

    ElleMD Well-Known Member

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    What you describe are not legal issues. They are simply departmental policies, and issues of judgment of the instructor. The school does not have to provide you PPE. I suggest buying your own and bringing it to class/lab with you. There is not much YOU can do about the attire of other students and I am not sure why you are worrying about it anyway. All of you are adults. If a particular TA is allowing conduct that truly endangers other students, contact the Professor, Dean or program chair and explain exactly what happened.

    You are not a doctor, nor are the TAs most likely, so you are not in a position to assess whether or not someone is too ill to be in class, and whether a medication they are on would have side effects such that there is a danger. Again, if there is a specific instance which presented a safety concern, talk to the Prof, Dean, etc. I will say that when it comes to any sort of experiential learning course, makes ups are extremely few and far between and for good reason. Logistically, it is a nightmare.

    If there is an injury, it would fall under the school's liability policy.

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