In 2008, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran was charged with violating state occupational health and safety standards, which allegedly caused the death of staff research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji. Cases of accidental death often set out to blame someone for the tragedy; Harran, who has been charged with four felony counts after Sangji perished in a lab explosion, was simply her employer.
A judge recently refused to dismiss the charges against Harran stemming from Sangji’s death more than four years ago. On Dec. 29, 2008, 23-year-old Sangji suffered fatal burns when she accidentally pulled out the plunger of a plastic syringe she was using to transfer tert-butyllithium (t-BuLi), a chemical compound that ignites upon exposure to air. At the time, she was wearing nitrile gloves, but no lab coat. The solution spilled onto her hands and torso, causing her polyester sweater to burst into flames. Over half of her body was burned and she died 18 days later.
According to the Los Angeles Times, if convicted, Harran could face close to four and a half years in prison.
In the first U.S. case where a university professor is faced with a felony complaint in the wake of an employee’s death, Harran is charged with “willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards,” according to the Times. He allegedly failed to provide hazardous chemical safety training, require body protection for employees exposed to hazardous substances and have an effective injury-prevention program.
What gets lost in this story is that this was a tragedy of more than one individual’s mistake. It is simply unfair to heap all blame on Harran, and no matter the verdict, the most significant outcome for years to come should be making sure such a tragedy does not occur again. In order to do that, we must closely examine what went wrong and realize that lab safety is a top priority.
Though the cause of the accident is still ambiguous, preventative measures could have been taken from the beginning. One of them is wearing a lab coat. If Sangji had had a flame-resistant coat on, her injuries would have been less severe.
On the training front, prior to the incident, the UCLA Environmental Health & Safety Office had conducted general lab safety training at the beginning of every quarter while principal investigators provided lab-specific training, according to Chemical & Engineering News. Because Sangji started work at the lab on Oct. 13, 2008, she missed the EH&S training and would have attended in January. Harran and UCLA maintain that she had had laboratory-specific training to complete her work safely.
Prosecutors say, however, that there is no evidence that Harran or anyone else trained Sangji in handling of t-BuLi, according to the Times. The defense argues that because she had done the experiment on a smaller scale before the accident and was successful, Harran had reason to think that she had been properly trained previously.
Yet, assumptions are never safe. Though it seems normal that Harran believed from Sangji’s excellent background in chemistry that she was a “seasoned chemist,” as she had graduated from Pomona College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry five months earlier, his job as her supervisor should have been to be absolutely certain that she had received proper training at the university. Also, Sangji must have had a lack of understanding of the hazards of her work to not have worn a lab coat. According to the C&EN, she had not worked with pyrophoric materials during her work for chemistry professor Daniel O’Leary at Pomona College or for Norac Pharma post-graduation.
Harran’s lab also had violations two months prior to the incident, according to the C&EN. The red flags included keeping more than 10 gallons of flammable solvents outside of flammable storage cabinets and lab researchers, including Sangji, not wearing personal protective equipment.
Nevertheless, many factors also contributed to that fatal explosion, and Harran should not be made out to carry the full weight of the accident. Granted, he did have a misstep in not being stringent enough, but arguably, the UCLA Chemical Safety officers who inspected the lab on Nov. 5, 2008 could have been more vigilant in correcting the violations. Sangji herself, while her employer did not specifically require a lab coat, could have taken more precaution. The two postdoctoral fellows present at the scene could have put her under the emergency shower but instead attempted to smother the fire with a lab coat.
Multiple aspects of lab safety requirements need to be changed, and not just in that specific lab. This accident could have happened in many other places. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal investigative agency, uncovered “safety gaps” in university labs that threatened more than 110,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the United States after the tragedy, according to The Bay Citizen.
The accident has brought under scrutiny the dangers of the laboratory, where many people routinely handle toxic, flammable and explosive compounds without proper training or supervision. EH&S now provides general safety training monthly. Researchers cannot receive keys to their labs until the training is complete, according to the C&EN. This case is significant because it will set a precedent for the standards in a lab, including what’s legal and how far a lab supervisor’s responsibilities go.
In order for positive changes to continue, lab preceptors, supervisors, inspectors, research employees and students alike must all do their part to make safety a priority in the laboratory.
Valerie Yu is a sophomore majoring in biological sciences and English.