An employee of a cleaning company turned off the circuit breaker powering a freezer that contained samples relating to photosynthesis that scientists had been working on for many years.
A maintenance worker destroyed numerous scientific samples by unplugging a freezer due to an “irritating” alarm, several American media report, including NBC News on the occasion of the opening of the trial in the United States
The facts date back to 2020 and take place in the laboratory of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Research carried out in this laboratory, relating to photosynthesis, is presented as having “revolutionary” potential for the development of solar panels.
A sign posted
A few days before the freezer was shut down, an alarm went off to warn of a rise in temperature above 3°C. An unforeseen event which did not present any risks for cell cultures, samples and research according to Professor KV Lakshmi, head of the chemistry and biology department within the institute.
At the time, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the intervention services: it was then necessary to wait a week for the freezer to be repaired. A sign was therefore affixed to the door of the freezer until the intervention took place. It says on it that the freezer was beeping because it was being repaired, and it shouldn’t be moved or unplugged.
“You can press the alarm button for 5 to 10 seconds if you want to mute the sound”, is it still indicated on the panel.
It was only a few days later, when the alarm started to sound, that the maintenance person present turned off the circuit breaker supplying electricity to the freezer.
According to New York Post, a report filed by public safety personnel at the institute said the cleaner thought he was turning the circuit breaker on, when he was turning it off. When the researchers discovered the error, the temperature of the freezer had dropped to -30°C. Problem: they are supposed to be stored at -80°C.
Consequence: the majority of the samples were “compromised, destroyed and rendered irretrievable, demolishing more than 20 years of research” according to the lawsuit filed by lawyers for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A damage estimated at 1 million dollars according to these lawyers.
The institute therefore decided to sue the cleaning company for inappropriate training of its employees. According to the American weekly Times Unionthis company had entered into a $1.4 million contract to clean up the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
According to plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Ginsberg, interviewed by NBC News, the cleaning worker had heard “annoying alarms” and “still didn’t seem to believe he had done anything wrong, but was just trying to help.” .
Source: BFM TV