We’ve had a lot of experience with this issue, although in an employment context, not in academic laboratories. I would strongly advise against such waivers. First, they would not stand up in court, especially with respect to birth defects, where the mother (or father – it takes both) can’t sign away her/his child’s rights.
Also, consider the PR implications, especially if the press links it with the Sheri Sangji tragedy. The only answer is to make the lab as safe as possible by:
· Rigorously assessing every operation, experiment and chemical and taking appropriate action;
· Ensuring that every student and lab worker is well trained in safety and in the hazards of all the chemicals they might encounter. In fact, the very first chemistry class for any student should be a comprehensive class in chemical safety;
· Ensuring that everyone has access to the best protective clothing and equipment;
· Ensuring that every student and lab worker has access to good medical advice regarding any individual characteristics that might put them at risk. It’s not enough to suggest that they consult with their own physician, who may have relatively little training in toxicology. There should be an occupational or environmental medicine specialist on hand who they can talk to confidentially.
It’s been a long time since I was a student, but the labs I worked in – even in public health school – were a long way from this standard.
Michael J. Wright
Director of Health, Safety and Environment
See us on the web at www.usw.org
I have a suggestion, which I must state is not popular: have the person in question, particularly a pregnant person, sign a waiver that not merely promises that they will not sue in case of misadventure (such as birth defects), but that they accept full responsibility for any consequences of chemical exposure, with the understanding that not all hazards may be currently known and that some responses to exposure can be idiosyncratic. (The listed LD-50 for glucose may not apply to a person with diabetes.) The reason for this (again particularly in the case of birth defects) is that any relatives other than the victim (for want of a better word) can sue on the victim’s behalf.
This is not to preclude previous consultation with a physician, which I would suggest should be documented, but the list of teratogens is growing and SDS’s (if they are like MSDS’s, as valuable as they are) are not always going to be up-to-date, will contain boilerplate and cannot cover all synergistic effects of exposure to a combination of substances. Consultation with a (qualified) physician would seem a requirement for informed consent, in which I am a strong believer. Nor should it preclude lab safety training, which should also be documented.
I recently got an email from a colleague asking:
“Our department is looking for model policies for students with medical conditions which might limit their participation in the laboratory (such as asthma, pregnancy, allergies, etc.). We’re getting a suggestion from “on high” to have a caveat emptor policy where we just refer students to the SDS’s and tell them that they have to make their own decisions in consultation with their physician.
Do you know of any models we might look at for review, consideration, and/or adoption?”
David C. Finster
Professor, Department of Chemistry
University Chemical Hygiene Officer
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