3 Updates: Sheri Sangji lab death; Chilean miners; Tesora Plant explosion

July 11th, 2014 by Julie Ferguson

We’ve recently found interesting developments or updates on three stories that we’ve covered in the past: A settlement in criminal charges in the Sheri Sangji Lab death case; an in-depth feature on how the Chilean miners survived; and a four-year retrospective on the Tesoro Plant explosion that killed 7.
Patrick Harran And L.A. District Attorney Reach Deal In Sheri Sangji Case
We’ve talked about the gruesome lab death of 23 year-old research assistant Sheri Sangji in a UCLA science laboratory in numerous prior posts.
UCLA’s chemistry professor Patrick Harran faced felony charges related to her death revolving around his alleged failure to provide protective equipment and clothing, failure to provide training, and failure to correct unsafe working conditions. In late June, the the LA DA and Harran’s attorneys reached an agreement.

“The deal mandates that Harran complete multiple forms of community service and pay a $10,000 fine. The charges were not dismissed. Instead, the case against Harran is effectively on hold while he completes the terms of the five-year agreement.”

The best overview of coverage and reactions to this settlement can be found at Chemjobber, a blog we’ve cited several times on this case. The comments in the article are well worth reading.
We’ve been interested in following this case from a safety culture viewpoint. Based on early reactions and comments that we saw on articles and blogs, many in the academic scientific community expressed views that an academic lab couldn’t be held to the same pedestrian standards of health, safety and accountability; that it was too exotic an environment; that it would stifle learning and creativity, etc. We also saw many reactions that the responsibility/fault lay more with the deceased – certainly not a new sentiment in any accident. Watching this case has been one of observing an industry grapple with difficult accountability issues. This commentary by Paul Bracher of ChemBark is certainly worth a read.
The criminal proceedings and widespread coverage have dramatically pierced the aura of inviolability in academic labs, environments that the US Chemical Safety Board has called “fiefdoms.” The real tribute to Sheri would be to see meaningful safety reforms. Certainly, UCLA is touting its new-found religion of lab safety and we can hope that time shows they are a leader; if the comments on articles and blogs are to be credited, the University has a long way to go in erasing skepticism about the depth of this commitment.
Sixty-Nine Days: the ordeal of the Chilean miners
In the New Yorker, Héctor Tobar revisits the 2010 Chilean mine collapse and offers an intimate look at how 33 miners survived the ordeal of being buried alive for 69 days. While the story gripped the world and we all know details, this is a fascinating account of events.
Four Years After Deadly Blast, Tesoro Mostly Unscathed
Seattle station KUOW has an excellent report on the 2010 Tesoro Refinery explosion that claimed the lives of 7 workers, noting that four years later, no one has been held publicly accountable for these deaths. The article chronicles many of the legal efforts still underway to hold the company accountable – as well as some efforts that have met with limited results.

“After a six-month investigation, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries accused Tesoro of willfully breaking the law 39 times. In October 2010, the agency hit Tesoro with the biggest workplace-safety fine in state history: $2.39 million.

That penalty made headlines, and it might sound like a strong deterrent to any company running a dangerous operation. But to a Fortune 100 company like Tesoro, a couple million is petty cash. The San Antonio, Texas, firm brings in that much revenue in about half an hour.”

As is the case all too often, since the imposition of fines, they have been whittled down to $685,000 and could go lower. The article points out how minimal and how ineffective federal and state regulatory sanctions are in such cases.
For more, see the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s material on the Tesoro Refinery Fatal Explosion and Fire