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Lab Safety

Charges Brought In UCLA lab Death

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

by Jyllian Kemsley
January 2, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 1

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.

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

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.

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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Hiam Chipman (January 3, 2012 9:11 AM)
I cannot believe she was working with such a dangerous chemical without any PPE? The first one to blame is her professor, herself and everybody around her but not the extent of prison. It is such a tragic accident that we all learned from. She lost her life at such a young age, it must have been devastating for her family. That is why safety is the most important feature in any chemical place or others, very crucial to adhere to safety rules even if nobody is watching.
Dr. Keith Korthals (January 3, 2012 2:54 PM)
Good! Professors need to be held accountable for mistreating graduate students and post-docs. When I was in graduate school I received NO training at all and I graduated in 2007. Many graduate students are worked 70 to 100 hours per week and then are blamed if they make a mistake. Many students are expected to work for > 48 hour work days or run procedures that require this time commitment! If the students do not work these hours many are threatened with deportation and/or to have their children taken away (I witnessed this argument with a graduate student and these words were used!). The US citizens are threatened with not receiving a letter of recommendation which is basically a "black ball" from science for not carrying out the will of their professor masters! The system needs to be changed!
Ivan (January 3, 2012 3:42 PM)
It is understandable that, in their grief, the family of Sangji want someone to blame, but what about personal responsibility? *She* was the one doing the experiment. She was not a child, but a qualified researcher with a chemistry degree and industrial experience, and yet *she chose* to do it without protective equipment and proper technique (we can argue whether she knew the proper technique, but she surely knew about the existence of protective equipment). It's not like she was forced to do things that way. If a commercial driver refused to wear his seatbelt and died in a crash, would you charge his boss with a felony? A boss can ask employees to wear seabelts or lab coats, but he can't force them to do it unless he goes to extremes of micro-management.

The parents say they don't want a plea bargain. They'd rather sit through an excruciating trial that may well result in the acquittal of Prof. Harran. But even if they "win", what do they (or the state) really win with putting a professor in prison?
Bob Buntrock (January 10, 2012 1:57 PM)
Schools, lab directors, and mentors do have a resposibility to educate and train everyone in saftey. Obviously not all chemistry degrees come with adequate safety training and we don't know what training the victim did or did not previously have. No matter. She (and everyone else in the lab) should receive both safety training in general and specific training for the task at hand.

In general, the gulf between academic and commercial lab practice and safety remains wide. Approproate garb and equiment in the lab is required in industry and your continued employment depends on your adherance. Non-academic insitutions are all too aware of liability issues. Schools should be equally concerned.
Raso (January 4, 2012 4:03 PM)
University labs (especially the UC system) are one of the darkest places in the State. The US citizens are threatened with not receiving a letter of recommendation, but foreign nationals are threatened with visa, which is worse. Professors only care about their RESULT, but do not care about safety and the future of graduate students and post-docs. This is the fundamental reason of this tragedy.
Alex (January 6, 2012 5:35 PM)
There is no good coming out of using professors as a scapegoat for these tragedies. Almost all professors have chosen their career path because they are primarily first and foremost interested in education. There are much easier ways to earn a living in industry and elsewhere, especially in today's academic funding climate, than to be a PI and professor. It is teaching that guides professors. If anyone thinks that professors are some kind of monsters who crack whips on graduate students or staff, they are just as off base as someone blaming the umpire for a team's poor performance or someone else blaming their K-12 teacher for their poor child development. Teachers are meant to judge progress and help students learn. They cannot take responsibility for a students' poor personal actions, many of which go against what the teacher teaches. Teachers and professors are not evil and have good intentions aimed to educate.
Ann (June 28, 2019 10:44 AM)
This is good that can come out of holding professors accountable .... MAKE SURE TO TRAIN YOUR EMPLOYEE/STUDENTS!
Roger N. Suiter (January 10, 2012 1:48 PM)
In thinking about the situation the lab coats at UCLA, at the time of the accident,
were probably cotton or polyester/cotton blends. So it appears to me that the grad student would have still sustained serious burning even if she had chosen to wear a lab coat.
As a result of the accident this tragic situation has resulted in a switch to fire retardant lab coats. I would hope that there would be unannounced inspections of the labs to ensure that various researchers are obeying the various safety regulations on attire and other matters.
Chuck (January 27, 2012 3:29 PM)
Sheri Sangji was an employee of UCLA, Dr. Patrick Harran was her supervisor. Sheri obviously made the wrong choices by not wearing her PPE but it is the responsibility of her employer and her supervisor to see that she does. This is a fundamental tenant of occupational law. UCLA by not having effective documentation that they had addressed a concern that they had identified (not wearing PPE) paint's them as being negligent.

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