Assistant fatally burned in UCLA professor’s lab, not an obstacle in receiving NIH grants

The June 2014 news on UCLA chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran’s website announces his lab’s award of an NIH grant. I wonder if it will be updated with his other news for the month?

Last week, Harran settled criminal charges with the Los Angeles County district attorney (DA) for the work-related death of Sheri Sangji, 23. Sangji was a research assistant in Harran’s lab. She’d only been on the job a few months. She was hired primarily to set up lab equipment, but on Dec. 29, 2008 she was assigned to use tert-butyllithium (tBuLi). The highly reactive liquid ignites spontaneously when exposed to air. The flash fire seriously injured Sangji. She suffered the intense medical treatment for the burns, but succumb to her injuries on January 16, 2009.

After an investigation by the California Bureau of Investigations (BOI) and Cal/OSHA, the DA issued an arrest warrant in December 2011 for Harran (and the Regents of UCLA) for willfully violating worker safety standards. (Details from previous posts here and here.)

Now, two and a half years later, the legal proceedings seem to be coming to a close. On June 21, the DA and Harran signed a non-prosecution agreement to settle the case. Chemical & Engineering News (CEN) reports on the terms of the agreement:

  • Harran must develop and teach an organic chemistry preparatory course for the South Central Scholars, a volunteer organization that helps prepare Los Angeles inner-city high school students for college and graduate school. … Harran must teach this course each summer of the five-year term of the agreement.
  • Harran must complete 800 hours of community service in the UCLA hospital system…[performing]  jobs such as delivering food to patients.
  • Harran must pay a $10,000 fine which will be given to the Grossman Burn Centers.
  • Harran must talk with all incoming UCLA chemistry and biology students about laboratory safety.
  • Harran must not violate California labor code over the five-year term.

Over the next five years, if Harran violates the terms of the agreement, the charges against him will proceed to a trial. According to the CEN reporter, the presiding judge said Harran’s compliance would be monitored at regular court appearances. The judge added:

“[Harran] will be given one chance to get this right.”

UCLA’s press offered released a statement following the announcement of the settlement. It notes that both Harran and UCLA

“have agreed not to deny responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated at the time of the accident.”

It seems pretty much business as usual  if you look at the website for Harran’s lab. There are announcements of students completing their doctoral theses, and others receiving post-doc fellowships. The two most recent entries publicize the lab’s recent award, in April and June, of two NIH grants. Sheri Sangji’s work-related death is clearly not obstacle to the lab receipt of federal research funding.

Harran offered a public statement of remorse. Sheri Sangji’s sister, Naveen Sangji, MD noted that his remarks were a condition of the settlement.

I hope Harran begins each of his community-service teaching gigs by telling the students why he’s in their classroom.  It could be something like:

I’m here because a young research assistant in my lab was fatally burned. I failed to ensure my lab was safe and provide the appropriate training and protective gear. She died because of my actions.

Comments

  1. #1 Luis Vazquez
    June 23, 2014

    The video clip posted here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6MfZbCvPCw shows how dangerous tert butyllithium can be. The relevant part is at 40 seconds through 1:15.

  2. […] Other coverage, a list that I’ll try to keep updated over the next few days. Feel free to let me know if I’m missing something: Press releases – UCLA, District Attorney News organizations – Los Angeles Times short and long, Toronto Star, Nature, Reuters, Associated Press, Westside Today, Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs – Chemjobber, Science Careers, ChemBark, Pump Handle […]

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