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Lab Safety

Charges dropped against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran for death of Sheri Sangji after lab fire

Judge grants defense request to dismiss charges nine months earlier than planned

by Jyllian Kemsley
September 14, 2018

LN-harrancxd.jpg
Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times
Patrick G. Harran (right) with his attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, in court on June 20, 2014.

A Los Angeles County judge has dismissed criminal charges against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran. The charges stem from the death nearly 10 years ago of staff researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after she was burned in a fire in Harran’s lab.

LN-sangji.jpg
Credit: Courtesy of Naveen Sangji
Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji died on Jan. 16, 2009, from injuries sustained in a lab fire at UCLA.

Harran faced four felony charges of violating the California labor code relating to the fatal fire. In 2014, before the case went to trial, Harran reached a settlement agreement with the district attorney’s office to drop the charges after five years if he met a set of conditions.

On Sept. 6, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli, who approved the original deal, granted a request by Harran’s attorney to dismiss the case nine months before the agreement was set to end. Prosecutors objected. Nevertheless, “Lomeli determined that Harran had satisfied all of the terms and conditions of the five-year deferred prosecution agreement,” says district attorney’s office spokesperson Greg Risling.

At the time of the 2008 fire, Sangji was working with tert-butyl lithium, 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. She was not wearing a lab coat and was burned on her torso, arms, and hands. She died on Jan. 16, 2009, 18 days after the accident.

In response, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office charged Harran and the Board of Regents of the University of California system in 2011 with felony labor code violations. The charges alleged that Harran and UC Regents failed to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failed to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failed to provide chemical safety training to employees.

If convicted of the charges, Harran faced up to four-and-a-half years in state prison and the university faced fines of as much as $4.5 million.

Harran’s 2014 settlement agreement mandated that he complete multiple forms of community service and pay a $10,000 fine. At the time of the agreement, Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum said that the settlement was likely similar to any sentence that Harran might have received had he been convicted. “There was no way that any judge was going to punish him by sending him to jail,” Hum said.

In 2014, Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, called the agreement “barely a slap on the wrist.”

The UC Regents also reached an agreement with the district attorney’s office in 2012. In exchange for the district attorney dropping the charges, the Regents agreed to accept responsibility for the safety conditions that contributed to the fire, as well as establish an environmental law scholarship at UC Berkeley in Sangji’s name and to maintain for four years a laboratory safety program for chemistry and/or biochemistry departments at all of its campuses. Most of the program required the UC system to follow the labor code it was charged with breaking.

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As of October 2014, UC had paid $4.5 million to outside law firms to defend itself and Harran.

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Comments
Cory K (Mon Sep 17 15:28:25 EDT 2018)
I'm very surprised that the PI was held responsible for this. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the working chemist (or grad student) to understand safe practices when handling pyrophoric materials such as tBuLi. This was a tragic accident, but I don't think the professor is at fault. She should not have been working alone, without a lab coat, using large amounts of such a reactive substance. My thoughts and prayers go out to family and friends. This is such a tragic story. Stay safe out there!
Dr. Somanath Dev (Wed Sep 19 14:55:41 EDT 2018)
The professor is not responsible at all. I did work on t-butyl lithium but I did in the hood and used safety glass, hand gloves, and the lab coat. The lab coat is mandatory to work in the laboratory.

Under any circumstances, the professor is not responsible. The graduate should know the safety of the chemicals.
My prayer and thoughts are with the family.
Robert Hill (Wed Sep 19 15:32:11 EDT 2018)
In my view this and other incidents continue to happen because chemical and laboratory safety education is missing from the undergraduate curriculum. Presently undergraduate students receive minimal safety training that does not prepare them for future work. This is not education - education provides knowledge and understanding of hazards and ways to minimize risks of hazards. It teaches one to critically think about safety and make decisions about laboratory work. Students and graduates need to be educated in chemical safety so they recognize (and understand) hazards, assess risks of hazards, minimize risks of hazards, and prepare for emergencies (RAMP). This lacking is a systemic problem in the academic chemistry community, Incidents such as this tragic one will continue until chemical and laboratory safety education is included in all academic curriculum for scientists.
JOHN GILLARD (Wed Sep 19 16:32:03 EDT 2018)
Thanks Robert Hill for the reflection on this tragic matter. If there is to be a general solution to these safety problems, it is ONLY through a carefully presented and implemented pre-requisite as an obligatory entry to the lab.
Dr. R. H. Fish (Wed Sep 19 20:44:12 EDT 2018)
There is no way that the PI cannot take the blame for what happened in his Lab, to a person, who was not trained to use t-Bulyl Lithium, as evidenced by her lack of protection, and tragically, she died from her chemical burns. This is every PI's responsibility, to know that each student/staff personnel, is fully trained in all safety methods and procedures. Furthermore, no person of limited experience should be allowed in the lab doing experiments, without an experienced postdoc/PhD student being present, while checking her methods and procedures, especially with such a pyrophoric chemical, as t-Bulyl Lithium. To me, as a professional chemist for ~55 years of experience, the PI received what he deserved, and will be criticized for the lack of proper training, in that period, that caused a death in his lab. He was held accountable, and served his court ordered service, but he will always be remembered for this tragic accident, that could have been avoided with proper safety rules, and not allowing any student/staff to work alone, especially someone with little experience.
David Dodds (Wed Sep 19 21:55:44 EDT 2018)
I have a question. I started hands-on organic chemistry at college 45 years ago, before MSDS, right-to-know, safety review committees and lab inspections existed. We handled all the reagents that are handled in undergrad and graduate labs now (and some that no longer are, for "safethy reasons"), generally in glass bottles without safety boots, etc. etc. etc.

My question is - how did we manage to stay safe without all the current safety procedures?

I don't have a good answer. The best I can come up with is that we "assumed everything was dangerous", and acted accordingly. We were responsible for ourselves. We certainly knew no one else was.

We also looked out for each other, and generally knew what the folks around us were doing in the lab, and would ask questions if we thought something was odd or dangerous. And we would ask others in the lab how to do something if we hadn't done it before - like fill a reaction flask with liquid ammonia, charge a hydrogenator, initiate a Grignard, make diazomethane, get rid of excess Rainey nickel, silylate glassware, run a high vacuum distillation, etc. No safety classes, no committees, no training on hazard communication, no lectures on risk assessment, no paperwork, no "safety resource identification", no pre-requisite courses, etc etc. Just what we used to call common sense.

But how did we get that common sense?

I have a partial answer. We all (yes - all of us) had made gunpowder and nitrocellulose and rocket propellants in our basements. We stuck spatula tips of inorganic salts into Bunsen burner flames to see the colours, dropped sodium into water, took white phosphorus out of the water it was stored in, dissolved coins in conc HNO3 to extract the silver, ran water electrolysis collecting the hydrogen and igniting it, dropping a wooden match in the jar that had the oxygen in it, etc etc .

And we learned that things could be dangerous. On our own. That education is missing today.

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