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Lab Safety

Charges Brought In UCLA Researcher’s Death

Lab Safety: UC system, professor face felony counts in death of Sheri Sangji

by Jyllian Kemsley
December 29, 2011

Credit: Courtesy of Naveen Sangji
Credit: Courtesy of Naveen Sangji

PDF of court documents.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against the University of California and UC Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran on Dec. 27, 2011, for felony violations of California labor laws in the death of a staff research assistant three years ago.

Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, 23, died on Jan. 16, 2009, from injuries sustained in a fire 18 days earlier in a UCLA chemistry laboratory. Working with tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air, she was drawing the chemical from a bottle into a syringe when the plunger came out of the syringe barrel (C&EN, Aug. 3, 2009, page 29). Sangji was not wearing a lab coat, and the chemical splashed onto her clothes and set them on fire. Sangji was burned on her torso, arms, and hands.

Credit: Courtesy of Patrick Harran
Credit: Courtesy of Patrick Harran

The charges center on a section of the California labor code that makes it a crime for any employer or employee manager to willfully violate any occupational safety or health standard in a way that causes death or prolonged injury to an employee. According to the California penal code, “willfully” means that the employer’s actions were not accidental, although it does not imply that the employer intended to break the law or injure an employee.

The charges specifically cite regulations involving failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees.

The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health cited UCLA’s department of chemistry and biochemistry in 2009 for violating the same regulations and fined the university a total of $31,875 (C&EN, May 11, 2009, page 7).

If convicted of the felony charges, Harran faces up to four-and-a-half years in state prison, district attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison says.

A warrant was issued for Harran’s arrest. Harran is out of town for the holidays and will surrender to authorities as soon as he returns, says Thomas P. O’Brien, Harran’s attorney. O’Brien declined to comment further on the case.

The university faces fines of as much as $4.5 million and is scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 12, Robison says.

Calling the charges “outrageous,” UCLA Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Kevin S. Reed says that the university will defend itself “with a great deal of vigor.”

Sangji’s death was an “unspeakable tragedy, but it’s not a crime,” Reed adds. “What happened that day was not the fault of UCLA acting willfully in violation of workplace safety standards.” Reed fears that the charges will have a chilling effect on the ability of California institutions to attract research scientists.

Since Sangji’s death, UCLA has increased laboratory training and inspections, purchased flame-resistant lab coats for researchers who use flammable reagents, and established a center to promote research into lab safety programs (C&EN, April 4, 2011, page 11).

Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, says the charges are “the first step to hold UCLA and Harran accountable for the excruciating pain and the suffering they put Sheri through.” Naveen and her family hope that there won’t be a plea bargain and that the case will go to trial, she says, adding that “we hope that this will keep other people safe from harm and keep other families from being hurt the way ours has been.”



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Raman Parkesh (December 29, 2011 2:45 PM)
This is great news but sad also. PI thinks that their students are slave and then should do anything just to progress their career. This has to stop. This is not science. University should also be punished as they are responsible for PI action's. I have seen that in such prestigious universities PI can practically get away with anything - even with murder. I hope Harran is held accountable for his actions and exemplary punishment should be given so that other PI can learn.
Sonia M. Najjar, PhD (December 30, 2011 12:20 PM)
While the captain of the boat should take responsibility, we should be mindful of the intricate symbiotic relationship between graduate students and their mentors. While the PIs are responsible of providing financial security and appropriate intellectual environment for their students to develop into successful independent scientists, students should respect this nurturing environment by working hard and succeeding, for their success (or failure) is that of the laboratory. No academician thinks of a student as a slave, but most academicians enslave themselves for the sake of their students' growth.

If there is a common mistake academicians make is that they overestimate the scientific background and expertise of their students. The horrifying accident at UCLA and the tragic loss of Sangji could have been avoided if safety rules were more reinforced, if the laboratory tried to find an alternative to the use of hazardous material and perhaps, had the student been more compliant. Nonetheless, too many ifs and none of it would bring this precious life back !!!!
Raman Parkesh, PhD (January 1, 2012 3:29 PM)
When I was working in a Lab in US, the very first day you join, you have to take the safety course. You can enter the lab, if you have not completed the course and you PI has not signed the safety form. UK has learned lessons about this a long time ago and their graduate or postdoc have very strong "Human Rights". They do the Science also but they both PI and University know their responsibility also.

Unfortunately, this culture is lacking in US. Although this tragic accident, for a moment, changed few things, but overall it has not changed anything. You can still go to any lab and you will see glaring security mistakes. Whose fault is this? If PI and University administration really care, no one will dare to break the rules. But the fact is that they don't really care. They will care about their publications, their tenure, getting various awards so that their career progress.

I understand ifs and buts will not bring a precious life back, but shouldn't we learn anything from it? The fact is that we will never learn anything form it and after few days, it will history and things will be back to usual again.

Dr. K (January 3, 2012 3:48 PM)
I agree!
R Frame (December 29, 2011 2:49 PM)
I can't believe you are defending UCLA administration and the professor -- If their behavior wasn't criminally negligent, then where would you set the bar?

Very disappointed in this garbage.

John K. Borchardt (December 29, 2011 11:36 PM)
Since the university was cited for the same violations in 2009, received a fine and did not make changes (or made and discarded them), it would certainly appear that Dr. Harran bears responsibility for what happened. Personnel turnover in academic reserch laboratories is high. This means that safety training must be frequent and continuous to be sure that all students and post-docs are both aware of and experienced in proper procedures.
James D. Bretz (December 31, 2011 2:37 PM)
You should re-read the article and get the chronology of events correct before you make your comments. The incident occured BEFORE the changes. They were NOT cited for the same violations in 2009.
Jyllian Kemsley (January 2, 2012 2:21 PM)
@John Borchardt - The Cal/OSHA civil citations and fine in 2009 were for the same incident as the criminal charges. I'm sorry if that part of the story wasn't clear.
Paul Bracher (December 30, 2011 2:01 AM)
Kudos to Dr. Kemsley for her thorough, dogged coverage of this story. There is a lot to be learned from standout cases like this one---whether in safety or other subjects---but the community needs objective, comprehensive reporting to analyze each case effectively.
A. Chemist (January 2, 2012 1:46 PM)
I think there is no question that Harran should be held accountable for the tragic events that occurred, but 4.5 years in state prison? How does this bring justice for the family at all?

My big question is, where do we consider personal responsibility in this situation? For all of you who want to throw Harran under the bus, is it absolutely, 100% his fault? The reality of the situation is that Sangji was not a 3-year old child, dropped off in the hands of a dangerously negligent babysitter, letting her play in the middle of a busy street or with fireworks. She was a highly-paid research technician (has anyone mentioned that as a lab technician, her salary was 1.0-1.5 times higher than any one else in the lab, such as post-docs or graduate students?) who had received safety training, and to at least some extent, aware of possible dangers associated with chemical research. Yes you are working with chemicals. Yes they can be dangerous. How do we account for variance in individual safety concern?

Think about it this way: to a large extent, society functions well, with the majority of people not being criminals. But every once in a while, someone comes by who is a little different - someone who, despite being taught all the rules, who went through a very "normal" upbringing, draws the lines a little differently in their own heads. They break the rules - be it stealing, arson, or murder. Do we charge the parents of the murderers for failing to uphold their end of the deal? For failing to raise a socially-compent human being? Can we stop murders by prosecuting parents of murderers? My point is simply that, a parent, or an advisor, can do all the right things in the world - but that things will still happen that are truly not their fault. I think what we're missing here is personal accountability.

Throwing Harran in prison will do nothing to bring anyone justice. It will only set a precedent that will encourage lines of responsibility to be drawn differently. Will the system be any better with red tape everywhere? No.

The efforts of the family, in my opinion, would be better spent toward actively promoting safety in laboratory environments. To the above poster that said, "I understand ifs and buts will not bring a precious life back, but shouldn't we learn anything from it? The fact is that we will never learn anything form it and after few days, it will history and things will be back to usual again," this is simply not the case. This incident has already sparked huge changes in synthetic chemistry labs across the US. If we spend our time further promoting laboratory safety, rather than trying to squeeze a few million dollars out of the bankrupt UC-system, we can actually make a change.
Jyllian Kemsley (January 3, 2012 11:30 AM)
@A. Chemist - Would you elaborate on the "huge changes in synthetic chemistry labs across the US"? I'm curious to know specifically what the changes are that you've observed. Do they mostly involve red tape or are people really thinking about and executing experiments differently?
Stephen Parker (January 2, 2012 9:26 PM)
The study of chemistry is intrinsically dangerous. I recently worked for a nanotechnology company. We had 3 accidental fires,although they we minor.
You just have to have respect and knowledge of the chemicals you are working with.
I had an accident similar to this unfortunate ladies accident I was adding an air sensitive reagent to a reaction and had the plunger of the syringe fly across the room
J. J. Krepinsky (January 2, 2012 9:55 PM)
The syringes are commonly quite dangerous piece of equipment. Sometimes the plunger seizes and has to be yanked - which may lead to spills with unknown consequences. It should be required to redesign syringes for use in organic synthesis so that the plunger could not leave the body of the syringe. It is a task for the syringe manufacturers.
Bob (January 3, 2012 12:43 PM)
Surely some responsibility has to fall on Sangji. She should have known the dangers associated with t-butyllithium and to syringe large quantities, as I understand she was, is crazy.
Putting all of the blame on the PI or institution is unfair.
ashok k kaushal (January 5, 2012 9:37 PM)
A very unfortunate tragedy.Sangji has left messages for her fellow students and faculty.Scientific investigation into the sequence of happenings must be widely made known to the Chemistry Clan as a lesson from which we can all learn.Accidents can not be wiped out but can be reduced to the rarest of the rare occasions where the the probability of the happening can not be estimated within a reasonable frame.The loss of Sangji,the sparkling youth,in the manner it did remains shocking to the core.
former chemist (January 11, 2012 3:12 PM)
While it is a tragedy, it's completely unfair to lay all blame on UCLA or PI. Having worked in a chemistry lab with a lot of toxic chemicals, you as the chemist are responsible for understanding the characteristics and dangers of the chemicals you are working with (this information being kept in the lab at all times as required by law) and to wear the appropriate attire (which IS required by the institution- it being required by law to both provide and enforce) for working with said chemicals. The institution is required by law to ensure that each of their employees/workers are appropriately dressed, but it's impossible for them to enforce the rules every second of every day unless they have someone watching each of the workers each of those seconds every day. Which is impossible. In this case, you can't rule out personal responsibility- while it's sad and maybe even harsh to say, Sanji failed to take all of the measures available to keep herself safe, which was her own responsibility.
William A. Levinson (January 12, 2012 12:06 PM)
Has anybody designed a glass syringe that makes it impossible to withdraw the plunger completely? Also, why was the t-butyl lithium not handled in a glove box? (Does not constitute engineering advice.) (See also J. J. Krepinsky comment above.)

I acquired a healthy distrust for organolithium compounds as an undergraduate; I don't like anything that ignites in air and that carbon dioxide won't put out.
Evan A. Thompson, Ph. D. (January 19, 2012 12:16 AM)
As far as I can tell it was a poorly designed experiment from a safety point of view. It sounds like she was not using safe equipment and not properly trained. While in graduate school at UCI, I used organolithium compounds after I had been well trained by an excellent PI. No one in the lab had any accidents with lithium compounds because of the proper experiment design, proper equipment, and proper training. I was extremely careful with the reagents and wore proper clothes and eye protection and worked in a fume hood. We always knew that we were only a small slip away from instant fire.
Thomas J. Colacot, Johnson Matthey (February 3, 2012 11:39 AM)
First of all I thank C & E News to publicize this sad story. Earlier another important news about fabricating the Ph. D work by a “clever” student under the supervision of a Professor was also exposed. These are very important news to be publicized, so as to create awareness among the Chemical community in the US and around the world. Both stories came from very prestigious universities, where the importance of ethics and lab safety were highlighted. It is interesting that both the Professors involved in these two stories were in their earlier part of their career. They both were very ambitious, but not spending enough time in the lab with the students.
Looking back of my Ph. D or post doc training days, the safety trainings that I got from the universities were minimum. I used to remember distilling pyrophoric and toxic Arsine (III) compounds during the late nights alone under high vacuum using mercury diffusion pump and mercury manometers or handling tert- BuLi using cheap syringes or transferring pyrophoric gaseous toxic chemicals from trap to trap. Now I work for an industry, where there is a lot of emphasis on safety.
When the new employees who did Ph. D and post-doctoral training from various prestigious universities join our lab, they still try to practice chemistry the in an unsafe “university way”. Typically, most of them adapt within a few weeks. If not, we have to send them home. Although some people commented that Sangi is 23 yrs old and exposed to the chemistry lab, she should have taken the responsibility, I totally blame the system and the university culture in the US causing this accident. Better house keeping is also important. Her hood was cluttered, which caused the hexane spill and added fuel to the fire. I also experienced from my post-doctoral experiences that the students and post-docs, who come from Germany are far more safety conscientious than the students from many other countries.
While Sangi’s tragic death is an embarrassment to the Chemistry R & D community, this story might help all of us to develop a safe work practice to minimize work place accidents. I also hope that a “law” should emerge from this incident, like the “Megan’s law.”

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