In September 2020, an incident occurred that led to the virtual destruction of more than 20 years of scientists’ work at the private Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Now the institution has filed a lawsuit in New York’s highest court, seeking a million dollars in compensation from the janitor’s employer responsible for the incident. The university accuses the company of failing to prepare its employee for the peculiarities of cleaning in a science lab. This case raises important questions about the safety and security of scientific research.
The lab of biology and chemistry professor Dr. Lakshmi was storing cell cultures needed for a two-decade-long project to study photosynthesis in a freezer. Storage conditions for the samples were extremely stringent, requiring the freezer temperature to be maintained at -80 °C. Even slight fluctuations of three degrees could lead to irreversible damage to the cultures. Therefore, an alarm was installed that was triggered if the temperature rose to -78 °C or dropped to -82 °C.
On September 14, 2020, the alarm went off because the temperature in the freezer rose to -78 °C. Professor Lakshmi and her colleagues assessed the situation and decided that even with a small temperature rise, the samples were not affected and could survive for several days until the repair of the chamber, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the scientists made provision for a janitor to visit the lab in their absence. They put an extra lock on the plug and socket of the freezer. They also attached a note to the chamber asking them not to touch it or unplug it, explaining that the freezer was emitting signals due to pending repairs. They also indicated that the location did not require cleaning and suggested that the alarm sound be turned off by pressing the disconnect button for 5-10 seconds.
But all these precautions did not help. On September 17, a janitor came to the lab after hearing the alarms, which he said were getting on his nerves. The man didn’t read the note and thought the freezer was beeping due to a power outage. He flipped the circuit breaker to the off position, believing he was turning it on. The janitor acted with the best of intentions, but his actions had disastrous consequences.
The next day, laboratory staff discovered that the temperature in the freezer had risen to -32°C due to the power outage. Most of the cell cultures had been destroyed irretrievably, taking with them the results of years of research. Scientists lost valuable data that could have contributed significantly to the study of photosynthesis and helped develop new technologies.
This incident raises important questions about the safety and security of scientific research. How should employers train their employees, especially those working in sensitive science labs? What safety measures should be in place to protect research results? Perhaps better systems for preventing and blocking access to such facilities should be developed.
Experts stress that such cases are a lesson for the scientific community. They call for increased responsibility and care when dealing with valuable samples and data. Everyone involved in the scientific process must be aware of the rules and safety requirements, and employers must ensure that their employees are adequately trained.