The workplace death of a laboratory technician at the University of California, Los Angeles, prompted a prosecutor to file felony charges on December 27th against the professor in charge of the lab and the university (California v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., Cal. Super. Ct., No. BA392069, complaint filed 12/27/11).
The professor, Patrick Harran, and UCLA are accused of three willful violations of California’s occupational safety and health standards in the January 2009 death of Sheri Sangji, according to the felony complaint filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in a state superior court in Los Angeles.
Sangji, a staff research assistant, died 18 days after sustaining second- and third-degree burns over 43 percent of her body in a Dec. 29, 2008, chemical fire in UCLA’s Molecular Science
Building. The fire started when the syringe Sangji was using to extract highly flammable t-butyl lithium from a bottle broke apart. When the liquid contacted air, the chemical ignited and set Sangji’s clothes ablaze. She was not wearing a lab coat or flame retardant clothing.
The district attorney’s office alleges that Harran and the university failed to provide hazard training, had an injury and illness protection program that did not include methods for
correcting unsafe conditions and did not require workers to wear appropriate clothing.
If convicted of the three charges, Harran could be sentenced to four and a half years in prison, according to the prosecutor’s office. UCLA faces a fine of up to $1.5 million for each count.
In a statement, UCLA called the charges “outrageous” and pointed to improvements at the school since the death, such as the creation of UCLA’s Center for Laboratory Safety. “The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct, and UCLA is confident and impartial jury would agree,” the university said.
This is not the first legal action brought against the university because of Sangji’s death. In May 2009, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Heath levied penalties totaling
$31,875 against the UCLA. The university did not appeal the citations .
The federal government is increasing its interest in lab safety issues. In addition, the Chemical Safety Board and American Chemical Society are working together to develop standard practices for research lab safety Also, in October, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a lab safety guidebook and accompanying fact sheets and reference cards. 01.03.2012