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, who 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 accident 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). On the day of the accident, she was using a syringe to remove tBuLi from a container when the syringe plunger came out of the barrel. She was not wearing a flame-resistant lab coat, and the chemical set her clothes on fire. She died from her burns 18 days later, on Jan. 16, 2009.
According to the report, Sangji had not previously handled pyrophoric reagents. 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 for her first attempt with the tBuLi procedure from then-postdoctoral 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 Cal/OSHA prepared on the basis of its investigations. 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.