Report Faults UCLA, Professor in Lab Death

January 23, 2012

A report provides new details on what led to felony charges against UCLA and a chemistry professor in the death of a staff research assistant following a campus lab fire in 2008.

The researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, lacked proper training and the university and the professor are to blame, according to the report obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health criminal investigation report obtained by the Times said Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji was neither experienced nor well-trained, as UCLA had claimed. She was burned over nearly half her body when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames and ignited her clothes at a campus lab in December 2008. She died 18 days later.

The 95-page report adds new detail to the circumstances surrounding Sangji’s death and provides insight into the basis for felony charges filed last month against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents, according to the Times. Based on labor code violations, the charges are thought to be the first stemming from an academic lab accident in the United States.

University officials have blasted the charges as “unwarranted,” “outrageous” and “appalling” and say they contradict an earlier CalOSHA investigation that resulted in nearly $32,000 in CalOSHA fines but no findings of intentional, or “willful,” violations.

The report, completed in 2009 but not previously made public, states that UCLA, by repeatedly failing to address previous safety lapses, had “wholly neglected its legal obligations” to provide a safe environment in campus labs and that Harran was personally responsible.

“Dr. Harran simply disregarded the open and obvious dangers presented in this case and 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,” the report by senior special investigator Brian Baudendistel states.

If Harran had trained his research assistant properly and assured that she wore clothing appropriate for the work, “Sangji’s death would have been prevented,” it said.

Harran’s attorney, Thomas O’Brien, disputed those conclusions.

“Dr. Harran remains devastated by this tragic accident,” he told the Times. “There are numerous misstatements in that report, but I will refer you to the UC regents for any comments.”

Harran and the Board of Regents are charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. Harran faces up to 41/2 years in prison if convicted; the regents could be fined up to $4.5 million. Arraignment is scheduled for Feb. 2.

Kevin Reed, UCLA vice chancellor for legal affairs, told the Times he “vehemently” disagreed with the findings. He said Sangji was well trained, had previously performed the experiment safely and successfully and chose not to use available protective gear.

“It was not as if UCLA found a newbie who didn’t know what she was doing and put her in a lab with no regard to the consequences; there is just no evidence to support that,” he said. “We didn’t just pluck her off the streets and put her in a chemistry lab. She was a trained chemist.”

She was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin.

Since Sangji’s death, UCLA has instituted more rigorous lab inspections, issued more fire-resistant lab coats, enhanced training in the use of air-sensitive chemicals and established a Center for Lab Safety.

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