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Oct 18

No. 50: What's my role and responsibility toward students who pilfer some lab alcohol for their parties?

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What's my role and responsibility toward students who pilfer some lab alcohol for their parties?

Reader Question: I've noticed on our lab-supply requisition that we seem to be going through a lot more ethanol than our experiments can justify. Of course, I know what's happening. Full disclosure: 20 years ago when I was a grad student, many a Friday night party for the gang was lubricated with "purple passion" — a concoction of lab alcohol diluted with grape juice, water, and sugar. Our reagent-grade spirits had been "liberated" from the lab. (I'm sure the prof knew.) That was then. No audit of supplies, no drunk driving, no host liable for serving alcohol to underage people, etc. But in today's stricter climate, how much leeway do I give my grad students and post-docs without becoming the campus cop or Scrooge? (I personally do not attend their parties.)

Expert Comments: Here are some things to keep in mind from a legal perspective:

  1. As PI, you’re responsible for everything that happens in that lab. That means not only the actual experiments but also the safety of all staff members. Your role is to communicate, follow, and enforce all institutional policies and procedures. Failure to do so can be seen as a breach of your duties as a manager — and that can be grounds for your own discipline up to termination, depending on the circumstances. Failure to enforce policies and procedures also frustrates the legal reasoning behind such policies, which is to protect the university from unnecessary liability.

  2. As PI, you’re a member of management. As such, anything you know is imputed to your organization — it’s as if the organization knows it. That means your institution can be held liable for negligence. For example, if one of your staffers gets drunk on lab ethanol, then drives a car that hits and hurts someone on the way home, both the injured victim and the intoxicated staff member could sue your institution.

    After all, you as a manager knew about, or highly suspected, the parties, so the institution can’t argue unforeseeable employee misconduct. And you failed to supervise or set limits. A plaintiff's attorney might also pursue the fact that you should have known because you had knowledge of missing ethanol supplies and failed to investigate it. (The attorney likely would cross-examine you on that during legal “discovery”).

    Another example: If someone merely slips and falls after consuming lab alcohol, they could argue that, because you knew about the use, you failed to supervise them properly. Your institution could be on the hook for their medical bills.

  3. It’s possible that you could be personally liable. There are areas of personal supervisor liability under the OSHA Act and other employment laws. Usually in these cases the safety or employment-law violations are particularly egregious and involve the supervisor flouting policies and procedures. In this case, you are on notice that there’s a problem and are ignoring institutional policies and procedures, so you’re on the road to personal liability if something goes wrong.

  4. You don’t know the exact circumstances of the ethanol use. You may be assuming too much — e.g., that the missing ethanol involves parties in which staff members are bonding over a few drinks they concocted. That might not be the case at all. It could be that the pilferer is one individual alcoholic lab technician operating safety-sensitive equipment — say a laser, radiation equipment, or handling dangerous chemicals. Alcohol use on the job could not only cause problems with your experiments but also equipment damage or injuries.

  5. As a manager, you’re obligated to investigate this further. You can report it to HR or campus security or conduct your own investigation. The key is to determine if someone is actually taking the ethanol — i.e., find out what’s happening to it. If you call on outsiders to investigate, they will advise you of the results and of the action that should be taken. It will then be your responsibility to impose discipline, which can mean measures up to and including termination or expulsion of those students. Failure on your part to comply with your legal obligations can lead to your termination and/or possible liability on your part.

So better safe than sorry here. Take your management responsibilities seriously and take action to find out what is going on; report the problem and take appropriate corrective steps to ensure the safety of all the students and employees.

Expert Comments by Melissa Fleischer, HR and employment law attorney, Melissa Fleischer & Associates, and president, HR Learning Center, Rye, N.Y., www.hrlearningcenter.com.

These comments are provided for general information only and may not apply to any given situation or case. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice for your particular circumstances.

> Submit your own comments

Additional Comments: The question here boils down to university policy (not to mention the law) vs. team morale.

On one hand, lab staffers are hard-working, and a little party/rebellion from time to time can help them blow off steam, strengthen their identity as a group, and improve team cohesion. Do you look the other way, risk damaging morale, and coming across as a killjoy? You recall fondly your own parties and appreciated your boss looking the other way.

On the other hand, what we're talking about involves stealing, which is against the law and against university policy. It exposes the university to the liability issues you mentioned and sets the tone that it's all right to break the rules. That's not a good message to send.

So the management issue ultimately involves finding a way to comply with the law and university policy without damaging team morale. How can you do that?

In my duties as dean, I would not advise a PI to look the other way while supplies are pilfered. But I would try to find a way to counsel the PIs to shut down the on-site parties and theft of supplies without damaging morale. Some ways to do that could possibly include:

  • Acts of thoughtfulness. This can mean something as simple as bringing in gourmet coffee and pastries for the lab staff and post-docs. Or offering some more flexibility in their schedules — showing appreciation, essentially, for the hard work they're putting in.

    Lab staffers will know that you're doing your job when you shut down theft and parties, especially if you explain that problematic supply audits come down on your head. Mitigating the potential morale damage with some treats can send the message that you're not a killjoy but protecting the lab and the university.

  • Informal suggestions of off-site (and safe) locations to meet for a post-shift happy hour. You don't want to do that officially, so perhaps just invite some staffers out for drinks after work at a licensed bar or restaurant, or suggest that be the gathering spot for “those interested”. That'll encourage all staffers to "take it off site."

There is a potential third issue: Are you afraid of using your authority? Once you're a manager, you're no longer "one of the boys/girls." You need to find your own way to be thoughtful and accommodating yet be a manager, too, holding the line on policies and procedures.

Expert comments by a research dean at a major northeastern university.

> Submit your own comments

Additional Comments: I guess all of us who have kept ethanol in our labs have had to deal with this. It's a tough issue, though not as tough as the parallel problem with controlled substances (I've known of a couple of real disasters there). I, too, enjoyed the traditional beaker martinis as a student.

But even as a young PI, I took the high road, more or less. I feigned obliviousness to any infractions that might have been going on, and every once in a while I would declare that abuse of the ethanol supply was illegal and irresponsible and could result in grave consequences — not only for the offending individuals but for the laboratory and the institution.

The main effect of such oaths seemed to be to discourage flagrancy — if not mischief.

At one point it seemed that things might have been getting a bit out of hand so I appointed a senior student as guardian of the supply. This certainly didn't eliminate the fun, but it did bring it back within bounds. Not being a politician, I'm never comfortable saying one thing and meaning another, but occasional pseudo-sincerity may be one of the burdens of being a PI.

Expert comments by Dr. T. James Matthews, Associate Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and professor emeritus of psychology, the Center for Neural Science, New York University.

Comments (18)
written by Old Prof, October 17, 2010
For Heaven's sake! What's the difference betwen dropping 100 ml of ethnol accidentally on the lab floor versus it wending its way down the gullet of some postdoc at their Friday night TGIF get-together? Let's just be glad our labs don't work with cannabinol!
written by Teed Off Teetotaler, October 17, 2010
Why should we subsidize those drunken fools. They don't buy us cigarettes, do they?
written by Tolerant Been-There, October 17, 2010
I'd rather sacrifice a bit of the ultra pure, reagent grade stuff then have them try to brew, distill, and drink God knows what back in their flat.
written by Lecturer, October 17, 2010
Please be sure your student flock understands the diff between "eth" and "meth". We had a close call.
written by Victor, October 18, 2010
That is why this country goes astray. People stealing and drinking lab ethanol are able to sue if they are injured (by their own making). People breaking traffic laws and regulations are able to sue General Motors if they are harmed in an accident (by their own making again). Chain smokers are able to sue Philip Morris for harms of smoking (which they were well aware all along). Americans for Common Sense and Personal Responsibility, anyone?
written by JG, October 18, 2010
One other perhaps not-so-minor issue - lab alcohol is generally immune from taxation. The IRS and various state DoRs take an extremely dim view of tax evasion, which this would definitely be. Since it was the IRS that first took down Al Capone, perhaps it's not wise to trifle with them....
Director, Center for Marine Science UNCW, Wilmington NC
written by Daniel Baden, Ph.D., October 18, 2010
The rule is "No eating or drinking" in the lab. On the flip side, why would anyone eat or drink anything that came from the lab? We all have heard stories like the post-doc who used to drink coffee from a beaker until one day he drank "Chromerge" cleaning solution...

And drinking absolute alcohol exposes to benzene, even worse.
Clinical Director
written by Donna Arand, PhD, October 18, 2010
There are too many risks here: medical, legal, and ethical. The PI should get a locked cabinet and put the alcohol in there. Only the PI should have the key and remove enough for the day or week and give it to one individual responsible for its use/dissemination. Then if there is a shortage for the day/week, that individual has to provide a written report that accounts for the missing volume before replacement is provided. In general, I would tell the staff that there has been a noticeable increase in alcohol ordering beyond the experiment requirements and you don't want this to be a red flag to administration, the research office, or purchasing. Because it is an item that is easily diverted for other purposes(laugh a little here)you don't want anyone investigating you, your staff, or the lab which would make everyone's life more complicated and hinder research. I would make it clear that you are not accusing anyone since the alcohol is accessible to housekeeping, environmental services, and many others but to protect everyone it will now be under lock and key.
This is just a crime of opportunity and these are smart kids, they will find other places to party, bond over the loss of a good thing, and accept that a "too good" thing came to end.
written by PhD,JD, October 18, 2010
Hate to ruin somebody's party: There is a little Federal group called Alcohol, Tax and Firearms (ATF) which wants every ounce of beverage alcohol to pay a heavy tax to the Government. Thus, tax evasion is one reason they chase the "moonshiners" way up in the back hills. I suspect your lab alcohol was exempt from tax, as it is supposedly not for consumption. (Besides, I assume you know the reagent grade is 200 "proof", twice as concentrated as permitted for drinking "as is")
written by Catherine Bennett, October 18, 2010
There is another danger of drinking lab grade ethanol not mentioned in your article. Ethanol that is distilled past 95% purity may be dehydrated with benzene, which is both toxic and carcinogenic. Trace amounts of benzene can remain in anhydrous alcohol, and thus it is not fit for ingestion.
Retired Department Chair
written by Dr. Fred, October 18, 2010
I wholly agree with all the comments that said "don't allow it", even though I used to join in Faculty-Student-Staff "Holiday Parties" where "Punch cum lab alcohol" was served. In particular, I believe the possibility of poisoning is a real danger. Traces of benzene in absolute alcohol has already been mentioned, as has the confusion of "methanol" for "ethanol". Another problem is the possible presence of commercial tax free alcohols "denatured" by added methanol or benzene. Unless you live in a "dry" state, outright thefts and potential poisonings can be avoided by charging everyone a couple of dollars and buying vodka at a discount liquor store.
Research Chemist
written by Eric, October 18, 2010
Abuse of lab ethanol is not just a matter of liability or "University policy", it can lead to an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms if it comes to their attention. Any disgruntled employees or students in your lab who might want to "get even"? The BATF will investigate it as a criminal matter, and it could actually mean prison, but more likely a hefty fine. It could also lead to shutting off the University's supply of tax-free EtOH or amazingly enhanced regulation.
written by nn, October 18, 2010
Very clearly this needs to be shut down. Students can easily be encouraged to bond in other ways, without using $ lab supplies (compare reagent grade alcohol to MD20-20 or whatever cheap hooch is common in your locale) or endangering lab safety.

More crucially, other posters are quite correct but perhaps did not make enough of a point: this is a potentially HUGE health risk not only with misreading "Methanol" or "Denatured" (and who is good with details when half cut?) but also with mixing drinks WAY too strong. This regularly happens with over-strength regular sources such as 141 rum, and that's only ~70% EtOH. Two "doubles" with 100% is equivalent to 10 regular drinks, and in a short period of time can easily lead to alcohol poisoning in naive drinkers. Don't you have a lot of foreign students who are too nerdy, or are from cultures less familiar with alcohol than ours?

So if you want to have a lab party, host a BBQ and call the students a cab - whatever time and $ you spend on the party will be more than made up for in quality time NOT spent before your dean (or worse), and the cab fare will be the best $ you've ever spent if there's ever an accident. But for heavens sake, don't let them drink lab alcohol.
Associate Professor, CRCH
written by David C. Fritzinger, Ph.D., October 18, 2010
Alas, when I was a graduate student, we also "borrowed" lab alcohol, and had some pretty good parties doing so. I think the problem is different today, especially since most lab alcohol I have seen is denatured, and therefore, carries more risks than just over-imbibing.
Professor MD
written by wsp, October 18, 2010
The serious risk here is accident toxic overdose by someone unfamiliar with the concentration of the lab ethanol. 250 mL of 100% could do in a young woman.
Watch out for this one
written by Professor MD, October 18, 2010
Pure grain alcohol is dirt cheap and available at any liquor store. If the students really demand booze, tell them the price and give them a stipend, divided equally among them, for twice the cost, out of your own pocket, saying you appreciate their work and want them to enjoy something nutritious, like ten smoothies, but it's up to them, being adults. No one should consume any substance, including ice, that is in a laboratory; neither should any one bring any consumable items, not even a glass of water, into the laboratory. A professor of mine had a horrible experience when a janitor misidentified methanol as drinkable alcohol and went blind.
written by a 59 year-old professor
written by Professor, Ph.D., October 19, 2010
Stick to just wine or beer and forget about the lab alcohol. In a worse case scenario, someone could accidentally grab the methanol (or something else just as toxic) instead, and now you have just as big a problem as those already cited here by others. Better yet, get off-campus and go to the local bar and drink responsibly and/or establish a designated driver. Yes, drinking in the lab will save a few bucks, but this is a good example of being penny-wise but pound-foolish. For those of you who don't know what that means, do a little research!!!!!!!!
written by Post Doc, October 23, 2010
I submit my comments respectfully to this apparently august Board. You idiots. First you pay us a pittance, and then you begrudge us the cheapest tranquilizer, stress reducer available to us. I hope my peers are too ethical for the following scenario, which was supposedly passed on by my grandfather. The houskeeper was suspected of taking a few drinks of whiskey from the family liquor cabinet, because the level in the bottle mysteriously declined every week. So Grandpa filed a small mark on the side of the bottle to establish the level of bourbon in the bottle that week, and checked it in a month. The level of liquid had not changed. but taped to the bottle was a note: "Mr. 'X', it would be a shame to dilute your fine whiskey with water, so please stop making marks on the bottle." Of course, the effect of such on crucial lab experiments involving pure ethanol could be far more dire, so can you please give more consideration to your "peons". Thanks.

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