The Pump Handle

Warrant issued against UCLA professor in 2008 workplace death of lab assistant

Sheri Sangji, 23, earned a bachelors degree in chemistry from Pomona College in 2008, and dreamed of being an attorney. While awaiting word on her admission to law school, Sangji took a job in October 2008 as a research assistant in the laboratory of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran. Three months later, Sangji was dead. She suffered severe burns on December 29 while working in Harran’s lab with tert-butyllithium (tBuLi), a substance that will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Despite expert care provided at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, Sangji succumb to her injuries on January 16, 2009.

Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley issued a felony complaint arrest warrant on December 27, 2011 against Professor Patrick Harran and the Regents of UCLA for willfully violating worker safety standards three years ago that led to the death of Sheri Sangji. On January 3, the warrant was withdrawn after the accused made a brief court appearance. An arraignment date is set for February 2.

Under Labor Code Section 6425(a) of California law, an employer [in this case UCLA] and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of any employment, place of employment, or of any other employee, [in this case Professor Harran] who willfully violates any occupational safety or health standard…and that violation caused death to any employee, or caused permanent or prolonged impairment of the body of any employee, is guilty of a public offense…. The statute explains:

“The word ‘willfully,’ when applied to the intent with which an act is done or omitted, implies simply a purpose or willingness to commit the act, or make the omission referred to. It does not require any intent to violate law, or to injure another, or to acquire any advantage.”

Harran could face up to 4 1/2 years in a State prison and UCLA could be liable for a $1.5 million penalty. The University’s PR office issued a statement in response to the DA’s action saying

“UCLA intends to mount a vigorous defense against the outrageous charges announced… The district attorney’s decision to file charges is truly baffling and directly contradicts the findings of the state agency [Cal/OSHA] responsible for evaluating workplace safety. …The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct, and UCLA is confident an impartial jury would agree.”

The District Attorney’s action came on the eve of the expiration of the three-year statute of limitation for filing the criminal charges.

The counts against Professor Harran and UCLA include violations of occupational safety standards adopted by California OSHA (Cal/OSHA) related to hazardous chemicals in laboratories and failing to provide adequate training on their safe use, personal protective equipment, and response in emergencies. In addition, they are charged with failing to correct unsafe conditions in a timely manner after such conditions are observed or discovered. That’s a violation of Cal/OSHA’s Workplace Injury and Illness Prevention Program standard. (No comparable regulation exists at the federal level.) These unsafe, uncorrected conditions were identified by a UCLA chemical safety officer two months before Sheri Sangji’s death during an annual inspection of Professor Harran’s facilities. They included violations of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), UCLA and Cal/OSHA standards involving excessive quantities of stored flammable solvents and liquids, inappropriate storage of water reactive compounds, and failure to provide and ensure personal protective equipment was worn by lab staff.

The university’s chemical safety officer expected the hazards and violations to be fixed by December 8, 2008. Following Ms. Sangji’s death, however, Cal/OSHA investigators learned that some of the deficiencies had not been corrected. Emails obtained by Chemical & Engineering News under the State’s open records act report Harran saying

“Our labs on four are overcrowded and disorganized. I wasn’t planning to be in temporary space for this long. We should be moving soon.” Harran asked for additional time to correct the remaining deficiencies. The UCLA safety officer agreed to the delay, writing “That should be no problem.”

The Los Angeles DA’s action last month is separate and unique from the civil investigation and violations brought by Cal/OSHA against UCLA in May 2009. Those included three serious violations and a monetary penalty of $31,875, which was paid by UCLA. University officials say the school has “dramatically increased the number of laboratory inspections and established even more rigorous safety standards,” following Sheri Sangji’s death.

Just a quick check, however, of OSHA’s on-line inspection records show serious safety violations continued in UCLA’s Dept of Chemistry & Biochemistry after the young woman’s death. Employees filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA which led to an August 25, 2009 investigation. Inspectors observed more than a dozen violations, including some of the same ones noted in the Sheri Sangji case, and proposed a $67,720 penalty. (The case was settled and UCLA paid a $36,690 penalty.) Three months later, a graduate student/lab employee suffered first and second degree burns while working in one of the Department’s labs, and was hospitalized for seven days. Cal/OSHA investigated, and identified serious violations of lab safety standards, (again similar to those cited in the Sheri Sangji case,) and proposed a $29,300 penalty.

This case is hauntingly similar to so many other worker death cases about which I’ve written. From employers failing to ensure that basic safety regulations are followed, and insisting the incident was simply an unfortunate accident, to pronouncements that the employer has reinvigorated its safety program while still being cited for serious safety violations.

This case is extremely unique at the same time because it is one in which a government authority is attempting to hold someone criminally responsible for the death of their employee. The current federal OSHA law makes prosecuting worker death cases practically impossible, and there are few examples of States’ attorneys pursuing cases involving even the most blatant disregard for workers’ lives. The People of the State of California v. the Regents of UCLA and Professor Patrick Harran is the first I recall in a long time.

In a letter to the Los Angeles District Attorney sent before the felony warrant was issued, Sheri Sangji’s family asked the prosecutor to

“make those who were legally responsible for Sheri’s safety answer in court about their deliberate disregard of the law. We ask that you hold them fully accountable for the death and suffering of an innocent 23 year old girl.”

They add:

“There is no doubt in our minds that criminal prosecution, against the university and the professor, will be the single most effective deterrent to unsafe laboratory conditions in the future at UCLA, and at other universities where right now individual professors, by the virtue of the money they bring to a university or by the research they accomplish, area allowed to do whatever they want, either because they demand it or because others kow-tow to them in these academic institutions.”