I worked as a grad student for 7 years in a chem lab. I had to go through school mandated safety for whatever I was working with chemical, biological, cryogenic, whatever. While OSHA and EPA did not breath down my labs neck, they breath down the schools neck on a regular basis.
a few things to keep in mind on the difference between industry and academia.
1) Academia is all R&D: there are very few reactions you do as process so you are constantly trying new things, new things lead to the possibility of accidents, regardless of training.
2) number of chemicals: I deal with this right now in my current job. in industry you have a very limited number of different chemicals on site related to your process. in academia you could have hundreds if not thousands on site as different researchers are working on various new projects.
3) grad student work hours: yes grad students are like medical residents they work long and hard hours. they are there to get their Ph.D. and leave not be all comfy in a job. the more you work the faster you leave. if you work too long, you'll make a mistake, it happens.
a few other items on this.
OSHA applies to anyone working in the lab, even undergrad students. Grade students are Employees, they are paid as graduate assistants.
Graduate students are not paid that poorly. when I was in grad school (late 90's) I made nearly $20k/year (which is not that much, but hey I was fresh out of undergrad) but I also got free tuition (9 credits a semester of graduate level courses is not cheap) and full medical and dental insurance. That is not a bad first job for someone just out of school with a bs in science. one of my students is going to be making closer to $30k/yr + tuition and benefits starting this fall. still NOT BAD for someone with little experience and just out of school
The most important thing to remember is that
ACCIDENTS HAPPEN!!!! they happen everywhere, both in industry and in academia. You learn from making mistakes. one just hopes that you have enough sense in your head to make sure your mistake is not fatal! This person violated the golden rule of the lab. NEVER WORK ALONE! I may have worked with someone not in the same room, but I always have someone close by who can hear me scream if something happens.
In academia, the accidents tend to be personal. a single person is hurt or dies (this person or Karen Wetterhahn (which I'm surprised no one hasn't brought her up yet). If the popular news gets a hold of this tragic student story, it goes like gangbusters. Schools are public, the media is there and has good access and when you put a young face to a tragic accident we all feel for them and say that it shouldn't have happened, just like we say after every tragic accident that befalls a single person (car crash, house fire, etc)
if the guy working the viagra production line spills some chemical on the floor, do you think that accident makes it out of the plant? he's probably written up, maybe suspended, and sent for retraining. if an injury occurs, yeah OSHA finds out, but how many of those accidents are reported to the public as an individual hurt in a lab accident? Industry reports their accidents as faceless statistics. The industry accidents that make their way to the public are normally so large that it's a public health threat (i.e. Bhopal or three-mile island) Thus our response to them are different. Either we don't know the person hurt or it's so big that its the evil industry that is out to hurt us all. No not really, just industry is bigger and when someone or something screws up the accident is a whole lot bigger.
While I feel for the person, remember that training only gets you so far, if someone ignores it then something is going to happen. Training only gets you so far, after that its lab experience that helps you prevent accidents in the future.
If there was something wrong with the safety training or rules set up by the university, I hope something is done to fix it. HOWEVER, i certainly don't hope that anyone is thinking of placing more controls on what can be done in a lab. All that will do is stifle scientific advancement in this country, which is already being started in the high schools with the removal or decrease in science education (especially with labs). I doubt we as a country can afford to loose any more ground in this area.
The views and opinions expressed above are purely my own.