USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

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These days the eyes of the academic chemistry community are riveted on a courtroom in Los Angeles where UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran stands accused of “willfully violating occupational safety and health standards and causing the death of a young technician in his laboratory.” Many professors are following the trial with trepidation, mindful of the possibility that they could be the ones facing the music in that courtroom. So far there is only one certainty about this evolving drama. It is tragic for everyone involved. A young woman with great promise for the future is gone, her parents’ lives now dominated by weekly visits to the cemetery. A distinguished professor’s life is shredded as he faces a possible prison sentence.

Dr. Patrick Harran is a researcher and teacher with a stellar record of awards and publications. One of his interests is appetite suppressant drugs and it was in this connection that twenty-three year old Sheri Sangji was performing an experiment in his laboratory on December 29, 2008. Sangji was equipped with an undergraduate degree in chemistry and had been working for a pharmaceutical company when she was hired by Harran as a research assistant. The particular reaction she was working on required the use of t-butyl lithium, a notoriously pyrophoric compound, meaning that it bursts into flames on contact with air. Obviously it requires special handling.
In the scientific community we are fond of saying that there are no safe or dangerous substances, only safe or dangerous ways to use them. And so it is with t-butyl lithium. If the detailed instructions provided by the manufacturer are properly followed there should be no problem. One method of transfer uses a syringe and it was the one followed by Sangji, but unfortunately not according to the instructions. The bottle wasn’t clamped, the syringe was too small for the amount being dispensed, and the needle used was too short, requiring the bottle to be tilted. Although the exact details are murky, Sangji accidentally pulled the plunger out of the syringe allowing the liquid to escape. It instantly burst into flames, igniting her nitrile gloves and synthetic sweater. She was not wearing a lab coat. In her panic Sheri did not run towards the safety shower in the lab, and by the time a fellow lab mate managed to extinguish the flames she had suffered extensive burns. In spite of care at one of the best burn centers in the U.S. Sheri Sangji tragically passed away three weeks later.

As would be expected, an immediate investigation was launched not only by the university but by California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Investigator Brian Baudendistel carried out extensive interviews with everyone connected with the case and put together a report accusing both the University and Harran with laxity in implementing proper safety procedures. He urged that both be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Baudendistel concluded that the professor had not discussed the specific risks of working with t-butyl lithium with Sangji and had not enforced the wearing of lab coats with enough vigor. He had, according to the report, “permitted Victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.” Furthermore, Baudendistel discovered that UCLA had received previous warnings about its safety standards and that Dr.Harran’s lab had been cited by UCLA safety inspectors for violations including failure to enforce the wearing of protective gear.

The district attorney’s office took two years to scrutinize the OSHA report. There would be no manslaughter charge as the OSHA investigator had requested. But after considering that there had been other recent accidents in UCLA labs that had not been properly dealt with, a decision was made to prosecute the University and Professor Harran for violating occupational safety and health standards. A warrant was issued for Harran who was on vacation at the time. As soon as he returned, he was arrested and a trial date was set.

Recently the prosecutor dropped felony charges against the University in return for a guarantee that a number of safety measures would be instituted. All professors and laboratory personnel would henceforth be required to complete a lab safety training program. Standard operating procedures must be written and reviewed by experienced, qualified personnel and must be followed rigorously. Anyone not wearing proper personal protective equipment must be removed from the lab and the incident documented. Regular chemical safety inspections have to be conducted and accepted procedures for the safe use of pyrophoric liquids must be followed. All occupational injuries and illnesses must be reported to California’s Office for Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Charges against Professor Harran were left to stand with a possible sentence of four and a half years in prison hanging over his head. Surprisingly, as we were all gearing up to follow reports of the trial, the case suddenly took a new twist. Harran’s defense attorney introduced a motion to dismiss the charges because, he claims, evidence gathered by OSHA investigator Baudendistel should be inadmissible. Why? Because Baudendistel was convicted of helping to set up the murder of a drug dealer back in 1985. Since he was a juvenile at the time, records have been sealed. The defense attorney claims that a man with such a history is not credible, but Baudendistel insists that they have the wrong man, apparently in spite of some fingerprint evidence. It seems to me, though, that this case should be decided based on the evidence and not dismissed on account of some irrelevant technicality.

As one might expect, the Internet is abuzz with thoughtful as well as inane commentaries on this extraordinary legal case. Some lay the blame on Sangji, claiming that she should have followed proper procedures and should have been wearing a lab coat, which in this case could have been life-saving. Others accuse Dr. Harran of murder for not properly supervising a dangerous reaction. But many chemists realize that neither UCLA nor Dr. Harran are unique examples of negligence in terms of safety, and recognize that their own closets may harbor skeletons. We can all hope that this sad case will cause institutions and individuals to reflect on their safety procedures and make improvements where needed. Indeed, according to a U.S. federal investigation, there have been about 120 serious lab accidents in universities between 2001 and 2011. Perhaps Sheri Sangji’s tragic loss of life will help reduce this toll.

Learn more about Chemistry in the Spotlight at the USA Science & Engineering Festival at www.usasciencefestival.org

The image used was just one of a random lab explosion.