Fatal lab accident sparks investigation into safety

Lab worker Sheri Sangji was just 23 when she was severely burned during a chemical fire at a UCLA lab in 2008. Her sister remembers visiting after she was rushed to the emergency room.

"When I got to the hospital almost 50 percent of her body was severely burned," Naveen Sangji said. "Her hands were burned down all the way to the tendon. Her abdominal wall had been burned off; she had third degree burns to her neck."

Sheri died 18 days later.

Lab workers say her death highlights ongoing safety concerns at university labs across the state.

Investigators with Cal/OSHA, the state occupational health and safety agency, were brought in to look into the accident.

Cal/OSHA investigators say Sheri was working with a bottle of t-butyl-lithium. It is a highly volatile chemical that ignites when exposed to air. According to Cal/OSHA and court documents, she was transferring the chemical using a syringe and accidentally pulled out the plunger.

The lab was run by chemistry professor Patrick Harran. He's now facing criminal charges and is expected to be back in court tomorrow.

In audio recordings submitted as evidence in the criminal case and obtained for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Harran was interviewed by investigators.

Investigator: "And when Sheri arrived, do you know if she received any general lab safety training from the university?"
Harran: "I don't believe she received generalized safety training. I believe my assistant was told that it was not offered for her category per se."

Cal/OSHA determined that Sheri Sangji had not been taught how to work safely with the dangerous chemical.

Investigator: "Did you ever discuss the characteristics of t-butyl-lithium with Sheri?"
Harran: "No, not of t-butyl-lithium, no."
Investigator: "OK. Did you have any fire-resistant clothing available for employees to use when handling t-butyl-lithium?"
Harran: "Not fire-resistant clothing, no."

The Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered at least seven chemical accidents at university labs around the state since Sheri Sangji's death, including spills at Stanford and UC Berkeley. Fortunately, no one was injured in the local spills.

Cal/OSHA says the way to get employers like the University of California to take safety more seriously is to impose tough penalties, including criminal prosecution.

Ellen Widess oversees Cal/OSHA and its bureau of investigations, which is empowered to build criminal cases and recommend felony charges.

Causing a workplace death or serious injury is at most a misdemeanor in most states. California is taking a harder line.

Harran is now facing three felony counts related to Sangji's death for violating state safety regulations. It's the first time a professor in the United States has been charged with a felony for the workplace death of an employee. UCLA and the UC regents are also named in the case.

"We're trying to send a clear message not only to the employers, but also to the industry generally that this behavior will not be tolerated," Widess said.

The university has paid Cal/OSHA fines related to the Sangji accident and for other violations they uncovered. UCLA is contesting another fine for not reporting a previous lab accident that seriously burned a graduate student.

Since Sangji's death, UCLA has founded the Center for Laboratory Safety. In a video, it says it will raise safety standards in academic labs and implement them on all UC campuses.

"The chancellor has made it clear that he wants to see UCLA as best in class," the video says. "And as a result of that, we're really putting a lot of energy and effort into sharing our experiences with other universities."

Harran did not respond to interview requests made by the Center for Investigative Reporting, but he did defend himself in a 2009 letter to the Los Angeles Times saying, "Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab ...Sheri's death resulted from a tragic accident."

In a written statement, the UCLA chancellor vowed to support Harran and fight what he called unwarranted criminal charges.

The Harran case is being watched closely.

"I think this is a landmark case," leading lab safety expert Jim Kaufman said. "It's been a tsunami throughout academia that criminal charges were being filed against the university. I think that good things are going to come out of this, and that Sheri Sangji's death will not be in vain."

Sherri's sister hopes so. She flies from Boston to Los Angeles for every court date.

"Incidents like this don't just happen, they happen because several processes are very wrong and my sister certainly should not have suffered that way," she said.

Harran and the university will be back in court tomorrow. If convicted, Harran could spend up to four and a half years in state prison and UCLA could be fined over $1 million.

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