Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Were you ever asked to pay for broken laboratory equipment?

Credit
An interesting query from Twitter:
A friend post doc-ing in the US told me that they were going to have to fund some replacement glassware that they broke. Is this normal?
I have broken lots of glassware, and I was never once asked to pay for the broken items by a PI. I've never heard of this. Readers, have you ever had:
  • a PI ask you to pay for 
    • a broken piece of a equipment 
    • when you were either an undergraduate, graduate student or a postdoc in an university research lab 
    • in the United States? 
  • If so, what were the circumstances? Did you pay up? 
(Is this illegal? I'm sure there are rules about this sort of thing, albeit poorly enforced ones. Also, there is the classic "is the postdoc an employee" question...)

Readers, please comment.

35 comments:

  1. In my undergrad chemistry teaching labs, students who broke glassware had to pay for it. I think that's pretty common for teaching labs. But I've never heard of it in an actual research lab.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ditto. This PI sounds like a cheapskate.

      Delete
    2. Dr. Z, I had almost the exact same thought--I wondered if this guy had run out of grants and couldn't buy replacements. (Which is a crappy situation, on top of crappy PI behavior.)

      Delete
  2. During my undergrad years I heard few times that students had an "upper limit" of broken glassware allowed (something like 100 bucks), and above that they had to pay. But I don't know if that was true or just an urban legends that get passed on when a student become TA and then tell their students etc (to make sure they take good care of the expensive stuff). I never heard of anybody who actually had to pay for something.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I broke the rotovap trap for the high-vac in grad school and there was never any hint of paying (although my group had lots of money). I had heard (dimly) that other groups sometimes had punishments (having to distill their own solvents for a week but still do the same amount of work - sounds like the Jewish slaves in Egypt a little too much for comfort!) and wonder if breaking expensive things would have also caused those punishments to be levied.

    Grad students and postdocs in most cases (close to an assistant prof, not so much anyone else) make significantly less than professors, and unless the breaker did something really egregious or repeatedly, this seems ridiculous. It sounds like this prof needs to be on the "Advisors Not To Work For" list.

    ReplyDelete
  4. In the labs I was a TA for, each student had a $50 fee tacked on to cover the cost of broken glassware. There were no payments beyond that for even the clumsiest of students.

    As for grad school/postdoc, I've never in my life heard of such a thing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Scott Denmark at UIUC makes grad students pay for accidentally broken lab equipment. I've never heard of any other PI's requiring that, but he's a well-known terror to work for.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's BS. Man up!

      Delete
    2. Anon 9:54 here. To clarify, I'm aware of a single incident circa 2002 where several individuals involved in some piece of equipment getting broken had to pay a few hundred dollars apiece. I do not know if this is standard procedure for the Denmark group, or if it was a one-time attempt to punish some individuals. I was at UIUC in another group at the time, and heard the story directly from one of the grad students who had to pay. He was unhappy about it, but felt that he had to pay to avoid pissing off the boss.

      Delete
  6. We've had problems with foreign students being afraid to touch anything in lab because they are under the impression that they have to pay for it if they break it (I think it's that way in some of their home countries?), which we had to train them out of so they could get work done.

    I've never heard of a PI charging for broken glassware in the US. That's bogus.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It would only make sense if the postdoc broke ruined some very expensive piece of equipment by his complete negligence, in violation of the training. But unless it is specified in job contract that covers the postdoc, and unless the needed job training was provided by the employer to make sure the postdoc knows how to use the glass apparatus, he can refuse to pay and argue he was not properly instructed about the use and about his own financial liability on the job. I doubt the university can collect on this unless he agrees it was his fault. So I would recommend he does not sign any paper about the incident now, until he hires a lawyer.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Not just bogus but illegal! This should be reported to the department of labor in their respective state.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you have a specific citation of law, or category of violation for this?

      Delete
    2. If it is a safety issue, one could make the argument that it is the employer's responsibility to provide equipment that is safe under the general duty clause. Broken glassware is clearly a hazard, so not too much of a stretch, though an employee would need to communicate to their supervisor (in writing) that they are not going to use broken glassware until proper equipment it procured.

      PPE is straight forward however as employers MUST provide PPE necessary to perform a job and not charge the employee for it (except in specific conditions).

      As with most things safety though, it depends. I strongly doubt you will be able to find a clear "employees must/must not purchase lab equipment" and it is specifically why the general duty clause exists.

      Delete
    3. CJ, it is illegal for a true employee (paid and taxes withheld and receives a W2) to be required to pay for his or her own required work supplies. If the employee is only a "contractor" and pays their own taxes and receives a 1099, then yes technically the "employee" has to pay for all supplies used in lab, including renting space to do their work. I personally went through this whole debacle with a previous employer while I was an undergrad as to who/what is an employee and who/what is a contractor.

      Delete
    4. Section 541.602b covers permissible deductions for exempt employees. Damaged equipment is not an allowed deduction. Now if the postdoc or student is paid as non-exempt my understanding is they could be reduced to minimum wage. The university is going to have to pay a ton of overtime to their postdocs and students though.

      Delete
    5. I'm also pretty sure that docking someone's pay for disciplinary reasons is illegal, which is what this sounds like.

      Delete
  9. When I was an undergrad my PI made a graduate student pay for breaking a 20L sep funnel (amazon says it is about $1000). No one had even used it yet and the student was prone to breaking things. The PI had explicitly told no one to touch it and the student came in when no one else was in the lab and it was broken. I always thought it was kinda extreme but this PI is no longer around for other issues so .... not a good precedent but yes it does happen

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Couple of questions:

      1. this was in the US?
      2. What broad time period was this (1995-2000? 2000-2005?), etc?
      3. How did the financial transaction occur? i.e. student brings in a check? PI docks pay?

      Delete
    2. good questions!
      1. yes, big R01, top 20 grad program in chem
      2. 2006
      3. the student was asked to write a check (in front of everyone at group meeting...an indication of some of the reasons that this person is not a PI anymore)

      Delete
  10. I have a slightly analogous situation from our group: 1) We have a foreign postdoc who turned out not to be very useful in the lab (he came with an impressive recommendation and publications but somehow he lacks basic lab skills) 2) His Chemglass cold trap assembly Schlenkline piece attached to the manifold got broken one night. The cause was over-tightening the horseshoe clamp that holds O-ring while the cold trap is cold. (The O-ring expands when it warms up and breaks the seal glass piece. 3) Given our geographic location, lack of glassblower, getting replacement piece from Chemglass or sending the piece back to Chemglass for repair takes 1-2 months, with a bit of bureaucracy, and it is a pretty expensive proposition. 4) The guy was told to watch out and not to overtighten the clamp, because it is known design weakness of this setup.

    Soon after, he also ruined his large oil pump, quite expensive, because he distilled some corrosive stuff into oil and left it like this long enough for the pump vanes to corrode

    The solution of this was to let him continue work with scrounged-together low quality replacement stuff (including a wimpy pump and Chinese-made crap manifold) and not to repair the Schlenk line and pump until he is gone. But the management did not try to penalize the poor guy in any way, shorten his contract or even to charge him for being a slob. His respect within the group suffered quite a bit though, as a result, and I feel a little sorry for this guy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I too had the experience of working in a geographically isolated and poorly funded lab at one point. We had communal glassware, which was limited in supply. While breaks were unavoidable, they were never punished by fines. The true motivator to stop breaking stuff was to avoid irritating labmates. I still remember my pain when my favorite column I used on a daily basis got severed at the neck by someone attempting to take it out of their fumehood before pulling the sash up. And defrosting our freezer to claim abandoned round bottom flasks holding mysterious brown oils.. to think of all the productive things I could have been doing instead.

      Delete
  11. Man, if true googling "scott denmark" should bring the below up.

    Scott Denmark at UIUC makes grad students pay for accidentally broken lab equipment. I've never heard of any other PI's requiring that, but he's a well-known terror to work for.

    These Old, slavedriver PIs need to retire NOW and take their oppressive mentalities with them. If there was a just world, they would be tormented by oppressive nurses in their retirement homes, the same way they tormented students.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For most PIs, the above statement is non-falsifiable, i.e. who knows if the Dread PI Roberts asks students to pay for broken glassware? However, Prof. Denmark is well-known for his lab handbook, so if it's in there, someone will say something at some point.

      Delete
    2. As a former UIUC grad (1997), I will say that I respected Denmark (and still do) although I never could have worked for him. Denmark was honest...he told you upfront the expectations of the lab. There were no illusions when you joined his lab, but if you graduated he really supported you. Many other PIs had secret expectations that you had to discover during your tenure as a grad student.

      I never heard of anyone having to buy equipment in his lab or any other UIUC lab, but it is very possible that this did occur and I was ignorant of it.

      Delete
    3. Coming out of a top undergrad program, I had identified Denmark as a possible grad adviser to a few of the profs I had worked with in my time. They all told me very quickly and sternly that I should not ever consider working for that guy because of his personality and such. So it wasn't like they said that I probably could not cut it in his group, but they straight up told me he is a terrible person.

      Delete
    4. "An avid motorsports fan, [Scott Denmark] owns a custom-built Porsche 951 RS Turbo and four motorcycles. He has held racing license since 2003 and have been racing 4 times a year to maintain the license. He also collects fountain pens and maintains a wooden chest that contains his rich collection.

      Scott loves cooking and delicious food. He has a famous fondue recipe that's published in the book What's Cooking in Chemistry, a collection of food recipes from renowned chemist."

      I didn't know there was such thing as a fondue 'recipe', up until now I just thought it was a bunch of melted cheese. I wonder if he breaks out the fondue at the Denmark christmas bash and lets his students ride around on motorcycles. Maybe they just perpetuate the nasty professor rumors to keep the fun to themselves?

      Delete
    5. This particular subthread is reaching the end of its productive life.

      Delete
    6. The Christmas bash involves egg nog and heterocycles, not fondue and motorcycles.

      Delete
  12. Once I broke ~700$ glass equpipment and PI got pretty upset. Though I offered to buy equipment myself, he told it does not work that way, be careful from next time.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The pattern of glass missing on that column is almost like the radioactive sign, or a propeller.

    ReplyDelete
  14. In grad school we payed small amount like 1-10 bucks more as deterrent that actual reimbursement. Canada, but PI spent most of his career in US

    ReplyDelete