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
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
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’ Compensation
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