UCLA and Professor Found At Fault in Deadly Lab Accident

Sheri Sangji (center) Image via: philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com

A three-year criminal investigation by Cal/OSHA into the death of Sheri Sangji has concluded, and investigators have found the professor in charge of the lab and UCLA responsible.  Ms. Sangji was burned over half of her body after she was engulfed in flames while transferring tert-butyllithium, a highly flammable substance, just three months after she was hired to work in a UCLA organic chemistry lab ran by Patrick Harran.

On Dec. 29 [2008], Sangji was performing an experiment related to Harran’s work on a potential anti-obesity drug, UCLA’s Reed said.

She was trying to transfer up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium, which was dissolved in pentane, another highly flammable chemical, from one sealed container to another. It was the second time she had performed that procedure in Harran’s lab, UCLA officials said.

“The barrel of the syringe was either ejected or pulled out of the syringe, causing liquid to be released,” the UCLA accident report stated.

Sangji’s rubber gloves caught fire, searing her hands. Her sweater, made of a synthetic material, was so flammable that Langerman, the chemical safety expert, compared it to “solid gasoline.” It, too, was quickly engulfed.

The panicked young woman ran away from a nearby emergency shower instead of toward it, records state, costing her precious time.

“She might have been fine” had she quickly made it to the shower, said Russ Phifer, head of the American Chemical Society’s safety division, who also reviewed the UC official’s account of the accident.

A postdoctoral researcher, who UCLA officials say was just a few feet away, rushed to Sangji’s aid and tried to smother the flames with a lab coat. Another ran in from an adjoining room, helped douse the fire, then called 911 and summoned Harran, Reed said.

“He said when he got there Sheri was sitting with her arms outstretched in front of her and someone was throwing water at her from a sink,” said Naveen, who spoke with Harran later at the hospital. That account squares with the UCLA accident report. LA Times, 01 Mar 2009.

Sangji died eighteen days after the accident of a respiratory failure and infection. Before her death, she was able to tell her sister that she had not received any safety training.

The 95-page report adds new detail to the circumstances surrounding Sangji’s death and provides insight into the basis for felony charges filed last month against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents. Based on labor code violations, the charges are thought to be the first stemming from an academic lab accident in the United States.

University officials have blasted the charges as “unwarranted,” “outrageous” and “appalling” and say they contradict an earlier Cal/OSHA investigation that resulted in nearly $32,000 in Cal/OSHA fines but no findings of intentional, or “willful,” violations.

The findings of the subsequent criminal probe, conducted by a different investigator, were far harsher.

The report states that UCLA, by repeatedly failing to address previous safety lapses, had “wholly neglected its legal obligations” to provide a safe environment in campus labs and that Harran was personally responsible.

“Dr. Harran simply disregarded the open and obvious dangers presented in this case and permitted Victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death,” the report by senior special investigator Brian Baudendistel states.

If Harran had trained his research assistant properly and assured that she wore clothing appropriate for the work, “Sangji’s death would have been prevented,” it said.

Harran’s attorney, Thomas O’Brien, disputed those conclusions. LA Times, 21 Jan 2012

Dr. Harran and the Board of Regents will be arraigned on February 2nd.