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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!
Derek (Wed Sep 19 14:58:51 EDT 2018)
Cory K's comment actually outlines all the reasons the PI does have responsibility for this - the fact that Ms Sangji was working alone, without PPE and handling a large volume of such a reactive substance suggests this was a lab where safety was not exactly at the top of the priority list and the proverbial buck for that stops with the PI, not the student. The first two actions could be grounds for dismissal in many an industrial lab.
Environmark (Fri Sep 21 21:42:16 EDT 2018)
The PI is culpable and responsible for verifying safe lab practices conducted by students. This is just another example of how academia considers itself the exception to accountability and responsibility to which the rest of society is held.
Adam S (Wed Sep 19 15:07:04 EDT 2018)
I agree with Cory K. Holding the PI responsible is like holding a professor or lecturer responsible for a student earning a failing grade because they did not provide corrective studying habits. At what point is a person held responsible for their own actions? A graduate student should have far more knowledge than an undergraduate concerning the tBuLi. Unfortunately, some chemistry is dangerous. I would be shocked if Sangji has never had a laboratory safety training. Undergraduates any my institution receive laboratory safety training concerning combustible materials.
James Keating (Fri Oct 05 09:38:10 EDT 2018)
Responsibility for a failing grade is in no way analogous to responsibility for the safety and health of employees by an employer - being burned to death is far different than a failing grade.

Sheri was a graduate student, but more importantly she was also a paid employee of the University. As such she must be protected by the Cal/OSHA regulations.
wayne wood (Fri Oct 05 10:28:54 EDT 2018)
I don't believe she was a graduate student, she was an employee.
Joydeep  (Wed Sep 19 15:09:57 EDT 2018)
Her professor was her supervisor. He was directly responsible for overseeing any safety violation. Saying a graduate student should know better is just a way of avoiding responsibility. You can not survive with this attitude in a corporate world.
gm (Wed Sep 19 16:58:58 EDT 2018)
I could not disagree more, @Cory K. It is up to the professor to establish safety protocols and make sure that his/her much less experienced students understand and follow these protocols. The professor is the "boss," much like a work crew chief at a construction job. The lead person must communicate and set the requirements for safety. I direct an academic lab and I make the ground rules very clear to my students. No working alone. No working on dangerous reactions without letting others nearby know. Follow SOPs. Always wear appropriate PPE. If I were lax, some students would be careful, but others would be careless or think themselves invincible, thereby leading to accidents. The professor is in charge of both science and safety.
hb (Thu Sep 20 11:58:06 EDT 2018)
While I agree that the PI is responsible for providing safety training and ensuring a safe workplace, that same PI is not in the lab, supervising the graduate students 24-7. Who is responsible when a student KNOWS how to perform a procedure safely, but CHOOSES to take a short cut?

My comments are not intended to be specific to the Sangji case. Rather, my point that there is no one party who is solely responsible for a student's safety in the lab. Everyone - the PI, the student, the institution, the other members of the lab - has a role.
gm (Wed Sep 19 17:57:02 EDT 2018)
I could not disagree more, @Cory K. It is up to the professor to establish safety protocols and make sure that his/her much less experienced students understand and follow these protocols. The professor is the "boss," much like a work crew chief at a construction job. The lead person must communicate and set the requirements for safety. I direct an academic lab and I make the ground rules very clear to my students. No working alone. No working on dangerous reactions without letting others nearby know. Follow SOPs. Always wear appropriate PPE. If I were lax, some students would be careful, but others would be careless or think themselves invincible, thereby leading to accidents. The professor is in charge of both science and safety.
Jyllian Kemsley (Thu Sep 20 20:58:44 EDT 2018)
Correcting some misinformation here: Sangji was not working alone, a postdoc was in the lab with her--though he was not working with her and didn't know what she was doing. She had graduated from college seven months before the fire and worked briefly for a pharmaceutical company. She joined Harran's lab two months before the fire and was working there while applying to law schools. Because she started mid-quarter, she did not receive the standard general safety training because at the time that training was only held at the start of each quarter. However, that training wouldn't have covered handling tBuLi.
star s (Thu Oct 04 13:21:49 EDT 2018)
The PI was told for FIVE YEARS in a row on his written, documented, lab inspections that he needed to supply FR lab coats to his lab personnel, due to known hazards in his lab. He did not do this. He was negligent and should go to jail.
Jyllian Kemsley (Mon Oct 15 13:00:23 EDT 2018)
@star s--From where did you get the information that Harran was told to supply FR lab coats to his lab personnel? He certainly wasn't told to at UCLA--he'd been there less than a year. Do you have knowledge of his lab inspections at UT Southwestern Medical Center?
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.
Joydeep (Wed Sep 19 15:13:03 EDT 2018)
As a supervisor of that student Professor was definitely responsible for it. It is his duty to enforce the safety procedure. Saying a graduate should know better is a way of avoiding responsibility. The university EHS department and the professor are directly responsible for it.
Samuel S (Wed Sep 19 15:16:09 EDT 2018)
I do not think that the professor or the university are liable in this case. if you are a "researcher" working with hazardous materials, it is YOUR responsibility to familiarize yourself this the dangers associated with the use of the materials and take the necessary precautions. Students at our institution get taught the proper procedures for handling hazardous materials, but they do NOT always follow the "rules". My condolences to the young lady's family but fining the professor $10,000 for and accident that he did not cause is grossly unfair to him.
Wayne Wood (Fri Oct 05 10:30:12 EDT 2018)
She was not a student.
Leigh Anne (Wed Sep 19 15:29:50 EDT 2018)
Yes, the professor is legally responsible. The leader of the group sets the tone for working conditions (alone or not, with proper PPE or not) and for training. I'm not sure it matters, but to clarify, Sheri was not a graduate student. We never wore lab coats or safety glasses in my graduate lab (at a top ten university for organic chemistry) . . . until this happened. The sudden decision to start wearing proper PPE was not self-regulated, rather it was newly mandated by our PI. Prior to this incident, our PI never inquired about receiving proper training, assuming the older students and post-docs were doing it. Following this tragedy, he was sure to ask "are you comfortable using t-butyl lithium ?" or "has so-and-so trained you on proper syringe technique?" and "who will supervise your use of the Diazald kit?". The leader sets the culture.
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.
Nick Schlotter (Wed Sep 19 15:54:15 EDT 2018)
Robert, we run safety training at the beginning of many lab courses and before summer research. It was even more extensive where I did my sabbatical (D1 University). Even back in the 1970s when I started graduate school we had safety training, later in industry we had safety training. In none of those cases was something like tBuLi really covered. Likewise the Joule-Thompson effect and hydrogen gas (we had a major fire at a hydrogenation station at one point because someone opened the tank to atmospheric pressure and it ignited.) These are very specialized events and the researcher needs to seek out information on the safety of handling such materials. Individuals need to learn to be safe with new materials and applications - they need to take responsibility for what they are doing. Even with all that, accidents will still happen because we don't know in advance all the variables that are being changed.

In this case I find it hard to believe UCLA didn't have lab safety training...perhaps just not for this particular issue. I also find it hard to believe the group members didn't provide instruction on handling tBuLi. How the student ended up with a large sryinge of tBuLi, no lab coat, alone, etc is a mystery to me. A sad outcome for sure, but still and accident.
Jyllian Kemsley (Thu Sep 20 21:07:32 EDT 2018)
At the time of the fire, UCLA held lab safety training quarterly. Sangji started in Harran's lab in October and consequently missed the fall quarter training. However, that training would not have covered handling tBuLi specifically. Harran had told Sangji to ask a postdoc for assistance. If she was taught anything by that postdoc, it was likely poor technique:
http://cenblog.org/the-safety-zone/2012/01/sherisangji-case-what-we-can-learn-from-the-postdoc/
Robert Hill  (Fri Oct 05 09:53:13 EDT 2018)
Safety training in NOT the same as Safety education. Safety training is being used as a substitute for safety education. Undergraduates need to learn how to think critically about safety. They need to be able to recognize and understand hazards; assess the risks of hazards; minimize the risk of hazards by learning about equipment and techniques; and finally be prepared for emergencies. This needs to be integrated into the entire curriculum.
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.
DT (Wed Sep 19 18:08:39 EDT 2018)
I completely agree. Sangji's death really hit home for me, since I was in graduate school at the time, about the same age as her, and working with similar chemicals. It made me realize just how dangerous the work was that I was doing, and left me kind of shocked that not only is safety training completely lacking in many academic chemistry settings, but that the attitude towards safety and enforcing basic procedures and PPE was totally cavalier in the schools where I worked. It was one of the contributing factors to me leaving laboratory chemistry altogether. I didn't feel like I had the knowledge to keep myself safe, and I didn't feel like anyone else was going to help me. It's frankly amazing that more people don't injure themselves in these settings.
fra (Wed Sep 19 15:34:30 EDT 2018)
Of course is responsible, it's a case of strict liability. I am surprised that the head of department didn't face the same charges.
D.A. Boyajian (Wed Sep 19 15:54:49 EDT 2018)
First of all, I am sadden, (as all of us are), regarding this tragic accident. My condolences go out to all family members.

Having stated the above, the Professor had demonstrated the correct and proper technique to this chemist for its safe handling and transfer. Being a chemist, she would have known and/or been obliged to check for or be made aware of any additional safety requirements. And as she was taught while she was training to be a chemist: 1). Always wear safety glasses 2). Always wear the proper attire for lab work (e.g., lab coat 3). Never work alone in the lab.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the family.
Jyllian Kemsley (Thu Sep 20 21:11:10 EDT 2018)
@D.A. Boyajian--From where did you get the information that "the Professor had demonstrated the correct and proper technique to this chemist for its safe handling and transfer"? From investigation reports of the incident, Harran told Sangji to consult with a postdoc, who likely taught her poor technique:
http://cenblog.org/the-safety-zone/2012/01/sherisangji-case-what-we-can-learn-from-the-postdoc/
Matthew Kollman (Wed Sep 19 16:09:37 EDT 2018)
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion as to who is responsible. However, I would like to point out that the responsible party(ies) in civil or criminal cases is(are) determined in a court of law. Simply stating who you think is responsible based on personal opinion is irrelevant. PIs can be held responsible for ensuring that their labs have safe operating procedures in place and lab users are properly trained, which is why he was charged. However, it is not that simple, as this has been in the judicial system for nearly a decade. In this case, the article explains who was responsible, "the UC Regents agreed to accept responsibility for the safety conditions that contributed to the fire."
Alan O (Wed Sep 19 16:30:47 EDT 2018)
It was his lab she was working in, he is responsible for ensuring that his workers regardless if they are employees or students have the appropriate PPE and training for the chemistry they are working with. It's his responsibility that once they have the appropriate training and PPE that they follow those requirements. Patrick Harran did not prepare his workers for the hazards they were working with and one of them died because of that. No chemist should ever be working without proper PPE and safeguards and its upon EHS, PIs, and department leadership to communicate the expectations and enforce them.
Ben H (Wed Sep 19 16:48:46 EDT 2018)
I wouldn't necessarily want to throw the student OR the PI under the bus without knowing the culture of the lab where it happened. My first advisor in graduate(in an organic synthesis lab) would have laughed if I'd asked him to provide a lab coat for me. He kept the gloves in his office and would hand me 5 pairs at the start of the week and tell me to "make them last" and if I wanted more than that, had to buy them myself(which I did, especially in light of the fact that I was working with mercury salts). He and I argued more than once because he didn't like me stepping out of lab for ~20 minutes to eat my lunch in the lobby(he wanted me to sit at my desk tin the research lab, something I refused to do).

I've seen other advisors who may do "encourage" safe working conditions, but at the same time work their students to exhaustion and students make mistakes after non-stop 14+ hour days, 7 days a week. I think that's another issue that needs to be addressed for graduate students as a whole, as it's more common than you might think(I've seen plenty of top quality PhDs from students who work more manageable 10 hour a day, 6 day weeks-bad things start happening to you when you regularly put in more than 60 or 65 hours a week).

On the other hand, if the PI provides appropriate safety equipment, makes sure that the students know the hazards for dangerous reagents and have been properly trained in how to handle them, and generally promotes a safe lab culture student responsibility then you can certainly start passing the blame if a student doesn't follow things. Unfortunately, all too often I see it at my own university where safety takes a back seat to productivity.

BTW, I now work as my department's safety officer, and I've discussed these issues with both PIs and students, sometimes until I'm blue in the face-although there's only so much I can say and do. Fortunately, most PIs want their students to be safe, and do everything they can(short of babysitting the lab). MOST of our labs that work with pyrophorics or other stuff like that are incredibly careful in their handling protocols.

Ultimately, though, when you are in charge of a lab, "the buck stops here."
Terry Iorns (Wed Sep 19 17:03:58 EDT 2018)
Safety is everyone's responsibility. I disagree with those who say the professor or principal investigator has no responsibility. I cannot recall ever seeing a university or departmental policy or session that adequately described the appropriate procedures to handle hazardous substances like t-BuLi. When a task like that is to be performed, it is up to the professor to make sure it is done safely, either through personal instruction or by assigning a more experienced team member to coach and supervise. Nothing is more important. General safety procedures like wearing a lab coat, using an explosion shield, wearing safety glasses and other protective equipment can be handled at the department level, but it is up to the professor to make sure they are followed and to provide more detailed instruction for specific hazardous substances, either personally or through proxy of a more experienced team member.
Jay K. (Wed Sep 19 17:28:44 EDT 2018)
To be fair, the professor should not have had to endure this much public hate and blame. Running an academic lab is no longer a trivial task. There is a continued pressure to find funding and collaborations, that drive the PI's to devote so much time in to taking meetings, writing grants, attending marginally interesting events etc.. So would the PI be also responsible for being behind each student/postdoc when they perform experiments? I think realistically the professor can set the guidelines (for PPE and such) and do the occasional lab walk-through. He/she can't (realistically) do lab walk-throughs every hour. This is why there are safety officers hired by Universities and departments. But I don't think the role of the safety officers are understood by academic institutions when compared to an industrial R&D site. Even after all these incidents safety personnel in academic institutions are devoting a lot of time to setting regulations, but rarely in to enforcing the rules. You don't see safety officers walking through labs even once a month, let alone every day. End result - some one loses a limb or dies one day - and the blame falls on the PI. So I think, instead of scrutinizing professor Harran, it should have been the safety officer(s) of the department that should have been sent to Jail to set an example. I doubt the UC safety officers would have been able to provide a weekly/monthly lab walk-through record to show enforcement of safety regulations to avoid such sentencing.
Ben H (Thu Sep 20 15:59:38 EDT 2018)
As one of those "academic safety officers" I do take an active role and visit every research lab in our department once every 2-3 weeks(teaching labs get daily visits). Safety is not my full time job, though, although admittedly it is a part of it that I take seriously. I run into a couple of things, though. One is that the lab employees are on their best behavior when I'm around. The other is that I'm constantly butting heads with PIs who are paranoid about people finding out what's going on in their labs.

As an example of the latter, I keep on file an annual "chemical hygiene plan" for every research and teaching lab. The Department of Environmental Health and Safety keeps it also, and really they're the ones who push for it to be updated. A lot of it is boilerplate, but among other things it is supposed to contain lab-specific SOPs(handling t-Butyl Lithium would be one of those) that detail-among other things-PPE that should be worn and other safety precautions that should be in place. The name and training date for every person in the lab should be listed. We have some PIs, however, who would say that it's "none of our business" if they use tBuLi(or whatever other pyrophorics) and refuse to file SOPs even if they know do use it. Fortunately, I have the chair's backing to push for this kind of stuff, but ultimately I only have so much in my power...
Jay K. (Thu Sep 20 19:21:08 EDT 2018)
I do have to say, I did not mean to offend any academic safety officers out there. My scrutiny is mainly about the way the system (academic research safety enforcement) is arranged. As this judgement shows, and for the reasons I mentioned above, the PI's alone cannot (and perhaps will not) take responsibility for these incidents. There has to be someone who has the power and the specific job description of enforcing the rules. In my opinion that has to be a/the safety officer. I am sure there are many academic safety officers who are passionate about what they do, and make regular visits to research labs as you do. But having had experiences at several top tier universities I find that not to be the norm.

As you see in this judgement, UC regents have taken responsibility for the accident. What did they do after words? Perhaps had obligatory visits (pre-arranged) to research labs, pumped up all the documentation (SOPs and what not). Would that alone prevent future accidents, or was it more to cover up their bases to deny liability when the next accident happens? As you have mentioned, pre-arranged visits to the research labs are going to have lab occupants at their highest-alert best-behavior. This may not reflect how they work in the lab in general. Solution: unscheduled (not known by anyone else other than the safety officer) random inspections. Obviously, the PI's will retaliate against this and reason their way out. I think every PI who want's to (or ever did) retaliate to such enforcement, is indirectly responsible for the death of this researcher (and others).

Another issue as you mention is that the PI's have a level of power over the safety officer(s) (especially the departmental ones) that discourages strict confrontation. But I doubt the judgement from the case in this article included any measures to strengthen the safety officers power in that regard. I believe that the safety officers should have higher power than the PI's in this matter, and also have their job security (and the chance for prosecution) dependent upon preventing these kind of accidents. Right now, if an accident like this happens again, this whole scenario will play out again without anyone other than the PI personally held liable.

Teaching labs are a whole different ball game. There are so many eyes on those, that it makes it much more unlikely for an accident of this nature to happen there. Additionally, the experiments are probably well designed to minimize all risks. The undergraduate/graduate students in that environment are not representative of how they will behave in a research lab that has minimal supervision.
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.
Geoffrey Brooks (Thu Sep 20 04:26:04 EDT 2018)
Over 50 years ago I was doing Organic chemistry experiments at Northern Polytechnic (then part of University of London) ... we had no safety training and as David Dodds points out no MSDS’s to study ... we always wore lab coats. At that time I attended extra-curricula courses on chemical carcinogenesis, which “frightened me” as I had just been washing my bench down with benzene... not realizing the risks we were all taking. I believe, that like David Dobbs, I had learnt a lot about chemical dangers/safety from my home experimentations!

My son who studied chemistry at Northwestern and USC, was instructed in chemical safety, and when I visited their labs, I could see that safety was of paramount importance, all the “trainee” chemists were properly attired wearing safety glasses, gloves and most reactions were done under a fume hood. He is now working in an industrial setting where safety is a top priority, no-one is allowed to work “alone”. MSDS’s are required to be read and understood for all the chemicals in the lab.

There is need for more instruction/information other than what one can glean from a MSDS. Courses on chemical carcinogens - and their danger, will amplify the understanding of the risks to researchers.
A Bopp (Thu Sep 20 07:11:08 EDT 2018)
Maybe, we were just lucky.
James Castro (Fri Sep 21 00:49:43 EDT 2018)
All discussion of responsibility and liability aside, just how does a cotton or polyester lab coat function as personal protective equipment? A burning liquid or a concentrated acid or base solution will soak right through it. Eye protection, decent shoes, and gloves are all important things to wear. A heavy rubber apron and a full-face shield would also be wise things to wear in some situations - such as handling tert-butyllithium. A fume hood door that is closed as far as is practical also would protect workers. But a lab coat, at best, might protect the user's clothing from getting contaminated or damaged by small amounts of a corrosive reagent. It would do no good at all in the event of a fire.
Jyllian Kemsley (Fri Sep 21 13:26:17 EDT 2018)
I wrote a bit about this in 2009:
https://cen.acs.org/safety/lab-safety/Charges-dropped-against-UCLA-chemistry/96/web/2018/09

I include the lab coat information in stories because it's something people always ask about. You're right that a polyester lab coat wouldn't have helped--it would've burned the same as the (also synthetic) sweater Sangji was wearing. A cotton lab coat might have given her time to remove it before her clothing caught fire, especially if it had snaps rather than buttons. Better would have been a flame-resistant lab coat. I'm not sure about an apron--that would've left her (again, synthetic) sleeves exposed.

Equally important is emergency response: Put out the fire immediately, either by going to a shower (in Sangji's case, there was one in the lab) or stop/drop/roll. Fire blankets can be tricky, because you need to use them in a way to smother the flames but not create a chimney effect. Labs should practice this to build memory for what to do when you would otherwise panic, similar to fire or other emergency drills (my kids' schools do fire, earthquake, spills, active shooter, and I think a couple more that I don't remember).
K. P. Jamison (Wed Sep 26 14:37:59 EDT 2018)
Has anyone run a simulated scenario and tried to figure out what would have happened had the student worn a lab coat? From the facts of the case, it seems that the fabric of the sweater the student was wearing was highly inflammable. I understand that even the basic training would not have included training for handling tBuLi, but presumably it did include wearing a lab coat at all times? The problem in my view is both of the system (PI + institution) and its beneficiaries (students + postdocs); neither of these seem to place a premium on safety.
Bhaskar  (Thu Sep 27 00:02:06 EDT 2018)
First Safety
Then Students
Then SCIENCE.
3S.
Katherine Flynn (Thu Sep 27 00:08:15 EDT 2018)
To those of you who believe Patrick Haran had NO responsibility in this case - please review the proceedings of the legal case that led to his fine and community service instead of a prison term. At that time Patrick Harran stated to the court, "Standing before you today, I understand that . . . I was ultimately responsible for the safety of the personnel in my laboratory," he said. "I have always felt I failed Sheri, and I deeply mourn her loss. I can only hope that, if not today, perhaps someday, [her family] can accept my deepest condolences and sympathies for their loss."

Without that admission of his responsibility as part of that agreement Professor Harran would have faced prison time. The legal case decision reinforced that the professor was indeed responsible. It is sad to see that several posters here in the chemistry profession have not learned this legal lesson from this avoidable tragedy. I am saddened that they do not see the moral responsibility either.

My sincerest condolences to the family of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. No amount of hours of service or a named scholarship will take any of your pain and loss away.

Sincerely,
Katherine Flynn
David Coffin (Wed Oct 03 14:21:03 EDT 2018)
The director of a laboratory is responsible for the climate and culture of the laboratory. This includes safety education and ensuring that appropriate training, and safety and laboratory equipment are available. Previous articles on this incident indicated that these were lacking. The sentence given to Dr. Harran was merely a slap on the wrist, and the fact that it was shortened is an affront to Ms. Sangji and her family.
Neal Langerman (Fri Oct 05 12:12:08 EDT 2018)
I am appalled by the opinions based on ignoring well-published facts. Jyllian Kemsley has done outstanding factual reporting of this entire story. Please go to the SAFETY ZONE and read the entire background before you develop and vocalize an opinion.

1. Sheri was an employee, NOT A STUDENT. Thus, Cal/OSHA had jurisdiction.
2. Sheri was hired to assist the lab in purchasing and installing Agilent instrumentation, with which she had extensive experience as an undergrad.
3. While she had little experience with organic synthesis, she asked for and was given by Prof. Harran a synthetic project to work on in addition to her instrumentation work.
4. She received no documented training of any type on handling tBuLi. Professor Harran did watch her handle an air-sensitive catalyst successfully, before turning her loose on the tBuLi project.
5. Professor Harran was in the building the day of the fire and had instructed her to perform a 3-fold scale-up of the reaction she had done in October. He was in his office at the time of the fire.
K. P. Jamison (September 26, 2018 2:37 PM) asked if any "modelling" was done regarding outcomes if other PPE had been worn. Yes, though until today it has never been discussed. During the investigation, with the actual medical records in hand, we considered how events might have played out if she had been wearing an FR lab coat as well as all cotton clothing and various other options. While skin burns likely would have been reduced, the pulmonary injuries likely would have been the same. We never definitively decided if an FR lab coat would have changed the ultimate outcome.

Bottom line: The PI is the "Captain of the Ship" and is ultimately responsible for all events on the ship. As a long-retired PI, I say to anyone in that position, you are responsible for your people. Protect them as if they were your children and family.

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