It could be the plot of a dark comedy if it weren’t a science tragedy.
A janitor working in a laboratory who was annoyed by an incessant beep reportedly flipped a switch that killed the noise — but also shut off a storage freezer, destroying decades of scientific work, according to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute lab in Troy.
The cleaner’s alleged carelessness cost the lab at least $1 million in damages, a lawsuit the university filed against its third-party cleaning service charges.
“People’s behavior and negligence caused all this,” Michael Ginsberg, RPI’s attorney, told the Times Union in Albany. “Unfortunately, they wiped out 25 years of research.”
The super-cold freezer the custodial worker allegedly shut down held cell cultures, samples and other elements stored at minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit, the Times Union said.
But when the worker from Daigle Cleaning Services shut off the circuit breaker Sept. 17, 2020, to silence a beeping alarm, the temperature leapt to a minus-25. 6 degrees that damaged or destroyed the material, the lawsuit claimed.
The freezer alarm had been triggered by a mechanical malfunction that stopped the unit from maintaining a constant temperature, as it was supposed to. Repairs had been scheduled for Sept. 21, 2020, the Times Union reported.
A sign on the lab freezer door explains the source of the alarm, and also had instructions on how to silence it, the Times Union reported.
“No cleaning required in this area,” the sign said. “You can can press the alarm/test mute button for 5-10 seconds if you would like to mute the sound.”
The cleaner thought they were flipping the breaker on when they actually turned it off, according to a report filed by the RPI public safety staff afterward.
“A majority of specimens were compromised, destroyed and rendered unsalvageable demolishing more than 20 years of research,” the lawsuit said.
The newspaper said Derek Foster, president of Albany-based Daigle Cleaning Services, could not be reached for comment.
Ginsberg told the news outlet it would cost an estimated $1 million to replicate the work, which reportedly focused on photosynthesis and may have furthered solar panel development.
The cleaning company had a $1. 4 million contract to clean the RPI facilities during the 2020 fall semester.