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Systemic Failures Cited In Lab Death

Report: State investigator alleges safety and training breakdown at UCLA

by Jyllian Kemsley
January 30, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 5

Credit: UCLA
Photo shows what remains of the 60-mL plastic syringe Sangji was using to transfer more than 50 mL of tert-butyllithium when she pulled the plunger out of the barrel.
Sangji was using a 60-mL plastic syringe to transfer more than 50 mL of tBuLi when she pulled the plunger out of the barrel.
Credit: UCLA
Photo shows what remains of the 60-mL plastic syringe Sangji was using to transfer more than 50 mL of tert-butyllithium when she pulled the plunger out of the barrel.

New details of the circumstances surrounding the 2009 death of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji are outlined in a report by the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA). The report says a “systemic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices” contributed to the fatal accident. Cal/OSHA sent the report to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which filed felony charges in the case on Dec. 27, 2011 (C&EN, Jan. 2, page 7).

The report—obtained by C&EN but first made public by the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 20—describes a seemingly ineffective environmental health and safety program at UCLA in which fixing problems identified during lab safety inspections and wearing personal protective equipment were viewed as optional.

UCLA administrators assert that the report is biased. It “reached the conclusion that the [state’s] investigator set out to reach,” says Kevin S. Reed, vice chancellor for legal affairs.

An attorney representing chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran, who faces prison time for the charges against him, alleges the report contains “numerous errors” but declined to give examples. The lethal incident occurred in Harran’s lab.

The report provides insight into how Sangji, who was 23 at the time, was trained to handle the pyrophoric chemical tert-butyllithium (tBuLi). Sangji died from injuries sustained in a fire that started when the plunger came out of a syringe she was using to transfer tBuLi.

According to the report, Sangji had not handled pyrophoric reagents prior to her job at UCLA. Harran told a Cal/OSHA investigator, however, that he checked Sangji’s technique by observing her use an air-sensitive nonpyrophoric reagent.

The report goes on to say that Sangji then sought help with the tBuLi procedure from then-postdocoral researcher Paul Hurley. Hurley told the Cal/OSHA investigator he could not recall his specific interactions with Sangji, but the approach he described for handling tBuLi was similar to what is known about Sangji’s actions leading to the accident. His description included details that are counter to safety recommendations for handling the hazardous chemical by its manufacturer.

The report is the second prepared by Cal/OSHA. The first report resulted in fines levied against UCLA for multiple safety regulation violations. Harran and the university are scheduled for arraignment on the felony charges on Feb. 2.



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