Posts Tagged ‘UCLA’

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

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

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.

It’s Cavalcade of Risk week; that and other news briefs

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Feeling risky? Cavalcade of Risk #89 is posted at David Williams’ Health Business Blog. David is a master of the brief synopsis making it a very user-friendly compilation to browse.
Other news briefs
Fire Prevention – We’re right in the middle of Fire Prevention Week, a good time to communicate with your employees about fire safety at work as well as at home.
Economy and workers comp – At Comp Time, Roberto Ceniceros looks at the issue of how continuing job losses could hammer comp. He notes that, “Comp researchers have referred to recessions and the accompanying fear of job loss as having a ‘disciplining effect’ on workers, which leads to fewer claims filed. But that effect may only last so long.” And for another perspective on where we are headed, at Managed Care Matters, Joe Paduda reports from the AmComp conference, predicting that workers comp results are going to get worse – he points to medical costs as the culprit. And for more on this topic, see How the Great Recession is Changing the American Workplace, an article in Insurance Journal by Jay Reeves and Christopher Leonard. The authors look at effects that are likely to be long lasting.
Hawaii – In 2010, workers comp rates in Hawaii are expected to decline for the fifth consecutive year. Insurance Commissioner J.P. Schmidt says, “This is the largest workers’ compensation insurance rate decline of any state in the nation, except possibly those states that have enacted major statutory reforms.”
Traumatic brain injuries – Military medicine practiced in response to war injuries has always been a proving ground for medical advances and the Iraq war has been true to form. The L.A. Times features an excellent article on what we are learning from the battlefield about treating traumatic brain injuries. Many of the symptoms of PTSD can mimic the symptoms of traumatic brain injury, which can be better identified with new diagnostic imaging technologies.
Friction reducing devices – On the MEMIC Safety Blog, Lauren Caulfield talks about friction reducing devices aka “slider sheets” as a way to reduce injuries in healthcare settings when repositioning and turning patients.
Followup on UCLA lab deathChemJobber has some recent updates in the case of Sheri Sangi, a UCLA lab worker who died in a fire while working. We’ve talked about this case last June in Death in the lab: why aren’t university labs safer? and More on the UCLA lab death of Sheri Sangji
Legal matters – In the Wall Street Journal, Cari Tuna talks about the rise in employer retaliation claims, which were up by 23% in 2008, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The article quotes one employment law attorney who puts retaliation as the No. 1 risk for employers today. Jeffrey Hirsch at Workplace Prof Blog says part of the reason is something akin to the principle it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.
Every picture tells a story – We’ve previously pointed to the Naval Safety Center’s Photo of the Week. hair-raising photos of unsafe work practices. The Safety Duck Quacks also has a collection of photos of unsafe work situations.
Quick links
Mortality calculators
Lessons learned on e-mail – When it comes to messages, some traces can linger
So You Think Your E-Mail Is Really Deleted?
Owner-Operator truckers back texting while driving ban
World statistics updated in real time

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?

Death in the lab: why aren’t university labs safer?

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Earlier this year, 23 year-old research assistant Sheri Sangji suffered an excruciating death after having been engulfed in flames in a UCLA science laboratory. A drop of t-butyl lithium, a substance that ignites on contact with air, spilled on her clothing causing an instant conflagration. Sheri suffered second and third degree burns over 40% of her body. Beryl Lieff Benderly writes about Sheri’s death in Slate, raising the question of what makes academic laboratories such dangerous places to work? Benderly notes that the safety failures that led to this fatality were unfortunately not an anomaly in private academic laboratories:

The death of a healthy young woman from a chemical spill at a UCLA lab is deeply shocking. But the presence of flagrant safety violations at a major research university is no surprise. After reading about the Sangji incident and others like it, a columnist for the peer-reviewed journal Chemical Health and Safety wrote that he’d come to the “disheartening conclusion that most academic laboratories are unsafe venues for work or study.” Though no one keeps comprehensive national statistics on laboratory safety incidents, James Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Mass., estimates that accidents and injuries occur hundreds of times more frequently in academic labs than in industrial ones.

In the wake of this accident, Cal/OSHA imposed a $31,875 penalty, citing safety lapses and lack of training. Benderly notes that had Sheri been a student rather than a paid technician, her death would not have been investigated by OSHA because the occupational health and safety laws that protect workers in hazardous jobs apply only to employees, not to students. The contrast between the culture, attitudes and practices of private laboratories and academia can be dramatic. Benderly describes an all-too-frequent academic machismo that can be disdainful of practices that would enhance safety, viewing them as bureaucratic and potentially stifling to academic freedom. In fairness, similar arguments and protestations have been raised by various private industry segments in response to OSHA standards, but the difference is in accountability. With most federal grants, “… applicants are routinely asked to document the steps they will take to safeguard the people and vertebrate animals they’ll be studying, but they needn’t provide any information on how they’ll protect the experimenters themselves.”
In another article for ScienceCareers, Benderly uses this incident as a springboard to discuss the issue of safety in academic laboratories in greater depth. In Taken for Granted: The Burning Question of Laboratory Safety, after examining various reports of the accident, she points to two areas that require attention, both in the UCLA lab, and frequently in other academic settings. These will be no surprise to safety professionals anywhere: better training and the need for a safety commitment that starts with the senior-most level of an organization. “The impetus to make safety a priority in academic labs must come from those able to enforce consequences.”
She is right. There are rock star academics whose research can bring huge grants and critical acclaim to a university. Safety is generally not a criteria that is evaluated as a part of their record, but it certainly should be. Benderly makes a compelling case that federal funding sources and university officials need to add safety as a criteria of evaluation to foster a culture of safety that will protect researchers as well as the research subjects.