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More Fines For UCLA

Lab Safety: California agency again faults university for lack of training, lax safety practices

by Jyllian N. Kemsley
March 16, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 12

Credit: UCLA
Sangji was syringing tert-butyllithium in this hood in a UCLA lab when the chemical ignited and her clothes caught fire.
Credit: UCLA
Sangji was syringing tert-butyllithium in this hood in a UCLA lab when the chemical ignited and her clothes caught fire.

An additional $97,000 in fines for lax laboratory safety practices has been assessed against the University of California, Los Angeles, by a state agency.

The school's department of chemistry and biochemistry has been under scrutiny since a Dec. 29, 2008, laboratory fire led to the death of chemistry researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji (C&EN, Aug. 3, 2009, page 29). The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigated the incident and fined the university $31,875 in May 2009 (C&EN, May 11, 2009, page 7).

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office is also now reviewing the Sangji case to decide whether to file criminal charges against the university or any of its employees.

The new penalties from Cal/OSHA include $67,720 for health and safety violations identified during inspections of UCLA chemistry research labs in August and December 2009. A separate set of citations assesses $29,300 for a 2007 incident in which an unnamed graduate student was burned.

The results of the latest Cal/OSHA inspections "seem to indicate that UCLA really doesn't yet have its faculty on board as taking responsibility for safety," says Neal Langerman, the founder of Advanced Chemical Safety, in San Diego, and a consultant to the American Chemical Society's Committee on Chemical Safety. The university may have beefed up its health and safety programs since Sangji's death, "but the faculty isn't there yet," Langerman adds.

Regarding the amount of the fines, dollar amounts exacted by Cal/OSHA are "never really punitive," Langerman says. "The real weight of the citations is the embarrassment. UCLA is coming across as an unsafe environment in which to be a student."

The most recent Cal/OSHA inspections highlighted several violations of California health and safety codes that carry a range of penalties. The citation that carried the most significant fine was for failing to train laboratory employees to work with "particularly hazardous substances, including select carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and chemicals with a high degree of acute toxicity," Cal/OSHA's report says. The agency labeled the failure as a "repeat serious" violation because the university was also cited for lack of training in the Sangji case.

UCLA has appealed the citations, says Kevin Reed, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs. In the aftermath of the Sangji case, the school has doubled the number of laboratory training and inspections it conducts, and the university believes that the citations do not reflect current operations and procedures, Reed says.

In the 2007 incident, a graduate student was dipping a glass rod in ethanol and using a Bunsen burner to flame-sterilize the rod for plating bacteria, according to a summary report by Cal/OSHA. The student accidentally knocked over the bottle of ethanol, which splashed onto his shirt and hands and ignited. The student's polyester shirt melted onto a cotton shirt underneath, and he was subsequently hospitalized for a week at a local burn center.

Cal/OSHA cited the university in this case for not notifying the agency of the incident, not having procedures in place to correct unsafe working conditions, and not ensuring that the student wore fire-resistant clothing or a lab coat. The lack of appropriate personal protective equipment, such as a fire-resistant lab coat, was also a factor in Sangji's injuries.

Reed says that UCLA is still trying to sort out the details of what happened in 2007 but that there have been significant changes to health and safety personnel and procedures at the university since the incident. The university is also appealing the citations in this earlier case.


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