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Faculty concerned about personal liability in research labs

STANFORD -- Judging by a Faculty Senate discussion of health and safety issues, some Stanford professors are increasingly worried about personal liability risks.

Following an informational presentation Thursday, May 13, by Larry Gibbs, Stanford's director of environmental health and safety, senators questioned the growth in environmental regulations and asked whether they should carry personal liability insurance.

Safety regulations in some cases are so detailed, Gibbs said in his presentation, that universities have difficulty properly monitoring them. He said his department works regularly with 20 different federal, state, county and local regulatory agencies.

In addition to providing service in the areas of radioactive, chemical and medical waste management, Gibbs said his unit consults in more than 10 technical specialties, such as industrial hygiene and safety review of student residences.

He said his goal is to provide leadership for a coalition to work with political bodies to create "more appropriate oversight regulations for academic research institutions."

The majority of alleged violations are of a technical nature, he said, involving record keeping or inappropriate labeling or failure to report to an agency. This was the case in a recent citation to Stanford from the California Environmental Protection Agency, he said.

"There will be continued media attention" to these problems, he said. The agencies use these technical violations for publicity, he also said.

Stanford's current health and safety program is "operating in compliance with regulations," Gibbs said.

Risks for personal liability

New laws and regulations are increasing the risk of personal liability for senior managers and for individuals who do not comply with environmental regulations, he said.

Responding to a question from Professor Ray Levitt, civil engineering, Gibbs said that compliance also is an issue for faculty and staff outside laboratories. Under terms of Senate Bill 198 in California, all employees are responsible for knowing regulations, and the institution is responsible for supplying them with the appropriate information, he said.

Faculty who use only blackboards and chalk, for example, still must know how to vacate their building in an earthquake or fire, Gibbs said.

Professor Steve Boxer, chemistry, asked whether faculty in charge of large labs should carry personal liability insurance against accidents.

President Gerhard Casper told Boxer "no." The university would defend faculty members, he said, adding (to senate laughter), "in all appropriate circumstances."

But, it is increasingly clear that "faculty members cannot any longer assume they are safe from criminal liability or responsibility," Casper said. "That is a real change in the way society has looked at these matters."

Gibbs said that typically if a faculty member has done nothing that is negligent in action or criminal in terms of not complying with specifics of the law, there would be no finding of criminal liability. However, government enforcement is moving in the direction of personal responsibility, and the enforcement people are looking "to put more teeth into their action."

Boxer pointed out that faculty find themselves "trying to control people who don't want to be controlled and do things that are inappropriate." What is a faculty member's authority to control people in his or her lab? Boxer asked.

Casper responded that the "single most important point" is that the lab director has to engage periodically in the "education and re-education" of students and others in labs.

Gibbs added that he would like to supply more central support to help lab directors educate those working under them, but said current staffing levels make that difficult to achieve.

Regulations called 'picayune, unrelated' to serious issues

Genetics Professor David Botstein chimed in to support Boxer, "Lest you think he is paranoid." Government regulations, Botstein said, are "so picayune and so unrelated" to serious safety issues that it is quite probable an agency could find some non- compliance, no matter how trivial, after a lab accident.

"It is probably not possible to operate an active laboratory and not be out of compliance at any instant in time," he said. The question of whether undergraduates and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows continue to be taught about science in the university "is seriously at risk," Botstein said.

Therefore, the university needs to lobby hard with government agencies to "put the severity of risk in line with the sanction." If the punishment does not fit the crime, Botstein said, faculty members will have to buy insurance and "the president is going to have to defend us endlessly against what can only be regarded as nuisance prosecutions, criminal or otherwise."

Casper responded that "those at the research bench" should describe to the public what the regulations mean, day-to-day, in the lab. "We all have to get together to spread the word on these issues," he said.

Referring to comments about liability, law Professor Robert Weisberg told his colleagues that the chances of criminal liability were "minute" and civil liability were "very small," but the chances were there to the extent that prosecutors want them there. And there are limits to the resources of the general counsel to represent faculty and staff members, he said.

"There are numerous instances in the university," said Weisberg, the reluctant president of the Stanford Bookstore board, in which "we just walk around manifesting liability."

Laughter ensued as senators considered Weisberg's plight trying to straighten out the store's financial and legal woes.

Senate Chair William Northway, radiology and pediatrics, declared that an appropriate way to close the discussion.



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