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Tragic Death At UCLA

July 20, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 29

The horrific death of 23-year-old Sheharbano Sangji is a reminder of the hazards that we all face (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 59). I am outraged at the not-so-subtle implication that Sangji was somehow to blame because she wasn't wearing a lab coat and that the university had discharged its obligations by providing that coat and eye protection.

Short of a full-containment fire suit, no lab coat will stop a splash fire. I do not censure her professor, Patrick Harran, for the accident, but I do question the university leadership's failure to follow up on the unsafe practices detected in the October 2008 safety inspection. Failing to address issues because the group was going to move to new space "soon" is inexcusable.

Laboratory safety should be continually on the minds of students, workers, professors, department chairs, deans, and university presidents. Unfortunately, it is not. After an accident occurs, the hunt for someone to blame begins, people mourn, legal damage control ensues, a professor's career is damaged, and life goes on. Little is learned, and nothing is changed.

During my more than 40 years in industry, I have visited numerous academic and industrial research laboratories. I agree with Neal Langerman's comment that laboratory safety in academic laboratories lags that in industrial laboratories (C&EN, May 11, page 7). I would add "by several light-years" to his statement. Industrial laboratory accidents are carefully reviewed, and the root cause of the accident is remedied. If supervisory personnel are shown to have been negligent, their careers may end or be severely curtailed. Academic laboratory accidents, if not incredibly serious, are laughed off.

I never had any formal or informal safety training in my 13-year academic career at four universities. On the other hand, the day I reported to my first industrial job in 1968, my new supervisor immediately handed me off to the laboratory safety officer who showed me where safety equipment was situated, how to use it, where the safety exit routes were, and verified that I had needed personal safety equipment.

As a part-time student, I was appalled by the conditions of laboratory space I was assigned. I immediately brought it up to standards learned in industry. After I left, the lab returned to its original state. Things have not changed in the intervening years. Recently, I toured laboratories in a major university and found them crowded, dirty, junk-filled, used to prepare food, and unequipped for safety.

Accidents will happen but their impact can be minimized. Safety is not a program but a state of mind. I mourn for Sangji. The world lost another beautiful soul needlessly.

David C. Thomas
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

I am deeply saddened by the untimely death of Sheharbano Sangji because of injuries suffered from tert-butyl lithium burns. Given the extreme danger associated with tert-butyl lithium in pentane, all transfers should be done with extreme care in a glove box. A small fire always results from trace amounts of reagent left in the syringe. I have successfully used dry ice to neutralize the residual reagent.

Researchers using this reagent should always work in the presence of another experienced chemist until they are sufficiently confident to make the transfer in the proper way. Furthermore, the reagent is best transferred cold because pentane has a low boiling point and pressure can build during transfer.

I sincerely hope that all academic and industrial labs using this reagent will institute stringent safety and training measures. One life lost is too high a price to pay for any research efforts. My thoughts and prayers are with Sangji's family.

Jacob Mathew
Winston-Salem, N.C.

At some point, we learn that lab safety can prevent accidents. Although being safe in the lab and developing clear safety practices can reduce the chance of accidents, they still happen. I have spent a good portion of my life at the bench in a laboratory, and the bulk of accidents I have witnessed occurred not in the laboratory but in our streets, parks, and forests. If one examines the statistics of injuries on the University of California campuses, this is also clearly apparent. Academic research laboratories are indeed safe places.

What I find really sad is that in light of tragedy, some individuals and reporters are capitalizing on what is clearly an accident and are using it as a tool to inspire (or force) others to be safe. The recent coverage in C&EN was quite disheartening. What does this teach those in academia? That laboratory safety programs and practices are more like "ambulance chasers" hunting for the opportune time to make headway? What do we learn from fines? Is this the way we want our students to learn how to manage safety?

I think the community is doing an injustice to the faculty member and the department of chemistry at UCLA, and it is about time we become more honest with our own personal laboratory safety. Over the years, laboratory safety officers have moved from being individuals whom students could go to for help to regulators whom they fear. Is this a good idea?

Articles like those appearing in C&EN contribute to this. ACS is also to blame. It does not offer friendly advice to its members on how to improve their own laboratory safety; instead, I get mail and e-mail from ACS about credit cards, retirement plans, and other investment or membership plans.

James J. La Clair
San Diego



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