Case of lab stench wound up in arbitration

Barb Sweet
Published on April 2, 2014

The noxious stench seeping into a Memorial University professor’s lab was so awful, it cost $1 million in renovations, once caused a fire department hazardous materials team to be called in and resulted in a spat between faculty and the administration going to arbitration.

Before everything was fixed, biochemistry professor Sue Ghazala, who specializes in food re­search, lost a freezer full of research samples when it was left unplugged during renovations.

Odour occurring

In a recent decision, an arbitration board hearing a grievance over the debacle ruled that MUN was reasonable in eventually fixing the problem, but sided with the MUN Faculty Association (MUNFA) that Ghazala should be compensated for lost equipment.

An overpowering smell had dogged Ghazala’s lab for years and was the subject of numerous directives to MUN from provincial Occupational Health and Safety inspectors.

“There is no dispute about the severity of the odour problems in Dr. Ghazala’s laboratory and the legitimacy of her complaints in that regard,” the arbitration board said.

The offensive odour, said an inspection report, permeated everything — including coats, clothing, paper and hair.

Putrid pandemonium

On one occasion, when it seeped into the hallway in the science building, it caused a panic.

“On Saturday, March 19, 2011, the Science building was evacuated and locked down after security officers detected a strong chemical odour, causing the St. John’s Regional Fire Department hazardous materials team to be called in,” the arbitration board said in its decision.

“While that crisis was shortly resolved, it became evident that the noxious odours in Dr. Ghazala’s laboratory, which had escaped into the adjacent hallway, were an extremely serious problem.”

The stench was finally tracked down to a deteriorated plumbing and drainage system shared between Ghazala and the neighbouring lab of Fereidoon Shahidi, whose research interests include food chemistry, chemistry and biochemistry of meat and seafood products, and fisheries byproduct usage.

But before the source was pinpointed, a consulting engineer had already overseen upgrades to the ventilation system — also outdated and shared between the two labs. It was first suspected the odour was transferring to Ghazala’s lab through the ventilation system, but in fact it was because of the connected drainage.

So there were two rounds of Science building renovations displacing Ghazala from her lab — between Jan. 23 and Aug. 20, 2010 and between May 1, 2011 and July 2012.

The $1 million for building renovations came from a “special government fund,” according to the arbitration report.

MUNFA argued at arbitration hearings in 2012 and 2013 that the university failed to provide Ghazala research, lab and office facilities, as required by the collective agreement.

The union said Ghazala was left to rely on “random acts of kindness on the part of other professors” during the renovations and while being deprived of lab and office space.

Furthermore, some of her equipment was damaged, including the freezer that contained important work samples. When it was moved during the renovations, it wasn’t reconnected electronically.

After hearing the grievance, the arbitration board was not persuaded the period of time Ghazala was deprived of using her laboratory was unreasonable or excessive or that the university improperly failed to provide equivalent facilities. The board accepted that the work was unavoidable and the university did not have a fume hood-equipped laboratory where Ghazala could be transferred to carry on her work uninterrupted.

While she was required to make several moves during the second renovation, the board said, she was never without some reasonably adequate place to use as an office.

The board said, however, that MUN did have a duty of care to protect Ghazala’s materials and equipment during renovations and acknowledged materials were lost and significant damage done to a number of important lab items.

It ordered the university to replace or compensate for what was lost and to fix a malfunctioning alarm on the lab’s new dilution pit, which collects laboratory waste.