As C&EN reported on Dec. 29, 2011 (C&EN Online Latest News, and C&EN, Jan. 2, page 7), the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has filed felony charges against the University of California and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in the death of staff research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji three years ago.
Sangji died on Jan. 16, 2009, from injuries sustained in a fire 18 days earlier in a UCLA chemistry laboratory. C&EN Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley has been reporting on the accident and its aftermath. As Kemsley detailed in her extensive story (C&EN, Aug. 3, 2009, page 29), Sangji was working with tert-butyllithium (tBuLi), a pyrophoric liquid. As she was drawing the liquid from a bottle into a syringe, the plunger came out of the syringe barrel, the tBuLi splashed on her clothes and set them on fire, and an open flask of hexane in the hood spilled and also caught fire. Sangji received severe burns on her torso, arms, and hands.
Sangji had started in Harran’s lab in October 2008 and missed the lab safety training that UCLA at that time provided to students and others only at the beginning of every quarter. She wasn’t wearing a lab coat when the accident occurred. And Harran’s lab had been cited for safety violations in October 2008 that had not been entirely rectified at the time of the accident.
The current charges, Kemsley writes, “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.” She also writes: “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.” If found guilty of all charges, UC faces up to $4.5 million in fines, and Harran faces up to four-and-a-half years in prison.
Since the charges were filed, a number of prominent chemistry-oriented blogs—among them In the Pipeline, ChemBark, and Chemjobber—have weighed in on the subject. The posts from the bloggers themselves have been thoughtful and restrained, and appropriate to both the tragedy of Sangji’s death and the seriousness of a university and a professor being charged with felonies in conjunction with that death. The situation is complicated and fraught with moral and legal complexities.
Many of the comments on the blogs and other news stories have shown no such restraint. Among the worst are those that suggest that, at 23 and with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Sangji was an experienced chemist who should have known better; that her death was, in fact, her own fault; and that UC and Harran are guilty of nothing at all. “Sheri was a big girl, an educated adult responsible for her own actions who did not need to be babysat in the chemistry lab,” one commenter wrote.
Others maintain, essentially, that making an example of UC and Harran by throwing the book at them is the only way that the lax attitude toward safety in too many academic labs will be corrected.
Neither of these extreme positions seems appropriate to me. That UC and Harran should face no sanctions given the facts that are known is unacceptable. As Kemsley said to me in a conversation about the case, the only people who think of a 23-year-old as experienced are 21- and 22-year-olds. Sangji was clearly unprepared to conduct the experiment that killed her. Other people in Harran’s lab who were there at the time of the accident were just as ignorant of basic safety procedures.
That said, sending Harran to prison for what are all-too-common safety lapses in academic labs would be overly harsh and almost certainly counterproductive. We need to change the safety culture in academic labs, not shut them down. If Harran is found guilty of the charges against him, a hefty dose of community service—maybe teaching lab courses and lab safety in Los Angeles high schools—would be a much more appropriate penalty to impose on him.
Thanks for reading.