Posts Tagged ‘Sheri Sangji’

More on the painful path to academic lab safety

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Later this month, UCLA’s chemistry professor Patrick Harran will face four felony charges in the laboratory death of his 23-year old research assistant Sheri Sangji. Harran is pleading not guilty to charges that revolve around his alleged failure to provide protective equipment and clothing, failure to provide training, and failure to correct unsafe working conditions. 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.
Our usual go-to source on this case is the blogger Chemjobber, who reported on some of the court proceedings leading up to these charges. He includes this statement from the trial judge

In court today, Judge Lisa B. Lench heard brief oral arguments from both sides, first on the issue to dismiss and then on the motion to reduce charges. She commented that the issues presented in the case were interesting and novel. She also said that Harran was unique compared with the usual defendants moving through the criminal justice system.

The judge is right in using the word “unique.” Employers rarely face criminal charges for worker deaths. Generally, in all but the most egregious circumstances (and even then…), workers comp is the exclusive remedy for employee grievances and OSHA is the usual path for safety violations. In this case, a fine was imposed on UCLA.
One of the other unique things about this case is the culture in which this accident occurred. There’s a strong “blame the victim” thread that runs through comments on stories, as well as protestations that the academic and/or the scientific arena is “different.” When we first read about and discussed the case,some criticism was directed at us for naivete, stating that health and safety personnel were unqualified to oversee “exotic” scientific protocols. (See our prior posts, More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji and Follow-up on the death of Sheri Sangji: a painful path to academic lab safety.)
Sheri Sangji’s death and the subsequent criminal proceedings against Harran have sparked a great deal of controversy in the academic scientific community – and on the more positive side, appear to have been a catalyst for a more serious look at university lab safety. Beryl Lieff Benderly of Science reports on a yearlong study of lab safety in nonindustrial institutions that was launched in May by the National Academies:

“An overriding theme at the meeting was the nature and size of the disparity between safety cultures and practices in industrial and academic settings. I have long heard from safety experts–and stated in my writing–that industry’s safety record far surpasses that of academe. Typical of this view is a letter by officials of three major industrial corporations, Dow, Corning, and DuPont, that was recently published in Chemical & Engineering News and was quoted at the May meeting. “The facts are unequivocal,” the letter asserts. “Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab.”

Benderly goes on to explore many reasons why a safety gap exists in the academic environment – among them, a wide variation in or lack of standards, a high value on independence, the lack of a hierarchical structure to enforce accountability, and various cultural barriers and resistance:

“As a result, the report continues, “At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom. … To combat cultural issues (such as fiefdoms) and bring a focus to safety within any given organization, it is important to ensure that the reporting structure allows for communication of safety information to those within the organizational hierarchy that have the authority and resources to implement safety change.”

The Harran trial will be watched closely by many in academia – it’s a painful situation all around. The best possible outcome of this tragic situation would be a heightened focus on lab worker safety – and it appears to be having some effect in prompting greater industry/education partnerships to heighten safety. Case in point: the recently launched Dow Lab Safety Academy.

More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Chemical & Engineering News has a followup story on the UCLA lab fire which killed Sheri Sangji in December 2008. The University of California, Los Angeles has paid the OSHA fine but is appealing the state’s findings of workplace safety violations. According to the article, UCLA’s vice chancellor for legal affairs, said the university’s appeal was necessary to ensure “that there was no citation or finding that can be used against the university in any future proceeding.”
We recently profiled the Sangji case, echoing some of the preventive measures suggested by the original article. Our post drew some push back in our comment section. Chemjobber disagreed with our recommendation and pointed to an article he wrote disputing much of the original article. (He has covered the Sangji case extensively over a series of posts so if the case interests you from either a science or a safety perspective, we’ve listed some of his excellent entries at the end of our post.)
Another commenter said “Certainly agree that suggestion to make safety records a key driver for tenure descisions is ignorant. Not to mention self-serving, when made by a “safety professional.”
We had a chuckle at the use of the scare quotes on the term safety professional…but in this case, it is spot on. Just to clarify the record, nobody at Lynch Ryan is a “safety professional” and we don’t make any money from providing safety services. In point of fact, if we really wanted to be self-serving about things, we would keep our mouths shut about safety because more frequent workplace accidents usually mean we make more money — out-of-control workers comp costs are generally what drive employers to seek our consulting services. Despite this, we would happily see workplace accidents and injuries eliminated and feel confident we could find another business niche were that the case. Maybe we would go back to school and study chemistry!
Regardless, we don’t think safety professionals should be lightly dismissed. We have seen other “exotic” workplaces involving science, medicine, and technology make their peace with safety standards and oversight and still be innovative and competitive. And in this case, if Cal/OSHA is correct, there was nothing particularly exotic about the safety procedure that might have saved this young worker’s life. They cite the lack of a lab coat as the single most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji’s death. And as the C&E story notes, on a recent lab walk-through by union reps, people in the lab still weren’t wearing lab coats.
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.
While the case under discussion involved a paid employee, many workers in academic labs are students so workers’ comp generally doesn’t come into play. We don’t believe that making lab and worker safety standards a factor in tax-funded research and grants is a particularly radical suggestion. We would also favor safety being a line item in any performance reviews for professors who oversee labs as is often the case in private industry. Right now, the professor in the UCLA lab will likely suffer an enormous personal toll; we favor prospective and preventative measures over retrospective ones.
In any case, we thank our commenters for their opinions and we would point any interested readers to the fascinating comments that followed the original article in Slate’s discussion forum. Students, scientists, private lab workers and safety professionals all weigh in, and as would be expected, opinions run the gamut. Some agree with much of the article citing a prevailing culture of bravado and a tendency to view safety as the “the redheaded stepchild” or “the scapegoat who took the fall when anything bad happened.” Others see safety as the responsibility of the individual, with one prickly commenter going so far as to suggest that Sangji’s carelessness was such that her death should have been labeled as a suicide. Yikes.
To follow this story as it develops, we refer you to Chemjobber. For those interested, here are some of his posts to date, with the most recent post at the top
Where is Sheri Sangji’s notebook?: further details emerge in the UCLA/tBuLi case
Sheri Sangji update: recent articles
Expectation”: more details emerge about the UCLA/Sheri Sangji case
Patrick Harran, peeing in the jury pool?
Critiquing the LA Times Sangji article, etc.
What happened to Sheri Sangji?