Follow-up on the death of Sheri Sangji: a painful path to academic lab safety

February 28th, 2012 by Julie Ferguson

In March, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents will be facing an ordeal they likely never anticipated: a court arraignment on felony charges related to a 2008 laboratory fire that killed Sheri Sangji. They face three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. According to the Los Angeles Times, the charges are thought to be the first stemming from an academic lab accident in the United States.
By way of background: In December 2008, Sheri Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air. A drop spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. She suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body, and died 18 days after the fire. In the wake of this accident, Cal/OSHA imposed a $31,875 penalty, citing safety lapses and lack of training. (Chemjobber has followed this case diligently . See all his posts on the Sheri Sangji case, with the most recent at the top.)
UCLA officials call the recent criminal charges outrageous, saying this was a tragic accident and Sangji had been trained to do the dangerous work she was doing. But a 95-page Cal-OSHA investigative report contradicts that defense, saying Sangji was neither experienced nor well trained, terming the risk “foreseeable,” and stating that the death was preventable had Sangji worn appropriate clothing. Further, “The report 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.”
In the wake of Sangji’s death, we posted about this tragic incident a few times. First, we raised the issue of why university labs aren’t safer, suggesting, among other things, that lab safety be added as a criteria of evaluation for federal funding sources. We got some push back from commenters who thought that such a suggestion was naive and that health and safety personnel were unqualified to oversee “exotic” scientific protocols. We followed with a response to these criticisms, as well as provided links to other articles and places where the death was being discussed by students, scientists, private lab workers and safety professionals. (See More on the
UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji
While Harran and UCLA are facing charges, this is apparently not a random or isolated incident. In December, Beryl Lieff Benderly of Science Careers posted Taken for Granted: A Blueprint for Safety Action Now. Here’s an excerpt:

Issued in October, a CSB report entitled Texas Tech University: Laboratory Explosion lays out in 23 pages of straightforward, nontechnical language what went wrong in a near-fatal 2010 incident on the Lubbock campus and what needs to be done to prevent anything like it from happening again.

The report goes far beyond the usual accident investigation’s list of technical mishaps. It views the maiming of Texas Tech University (TTU) graduate student Preston Brown not as an isolated series of individual errors but as the predictable outcome of a culture, set of values, and system of organization prevalent not only at TTU but also at many other campuses. Having collected at least “preliminary information” on 120 other such incidents, CSB declares itself “greatly concerned about the frequency of academic laboratory incidents in the United States.”

Academia has evaded some of the scrutiny that private employers face in safety standards. The issue of lab safety still sparks controversy. Many still think that the environment is too exotic and too specialized to incorporate safety standards and that regulations would stifle creative research work. That’s little more than obfuscation and foot dragging. Lieff Benderly posted another article Taken for Granted: How to Live With Danger outlining the contrast between chemical laboratory safety and that of another industry, airlines.
In The Sharp Knife of a Short Life, the blog Chembank frames the issues well:

“Changing the culture of an institution–especially one as intractable as chemical academia–is extraordinarily difficult. But so long as we forgo meaningful changes in favor of cosmetic ones that we don’t even bother to sustain anyway, we will continue to experience frustration and tragedy. One wonders what magnitude of disruption is necessary for our community to commit itself to improvement. Apparently, it is much greater than the death of a twenty-something student.”

We repeat a comment that we made in 2009:

Some workplaces come by safety voluntarily with a commitment from the top. Other employers – even generally well meaning employers – don’t truly embrace safety until they have had paid some very steep price. Sometimes that price is a gut-wrenching human one, as when a worker dies; other times, the toll is purely economic, in high workers comp costs, ruinous lawsuits, and bad publicity. Unfortunately, money is often the best change agent. That, and the push provided by standards and enforcement under OSHA.

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