August 6, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 1Comment

We’ve written before (see here and here) about Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old laboratory worker who died from burns she suffered when one of the chemicals she was using caught fire. She was working unsupervised and without protective clothing in a UCLA chemistry lab, using tert-Butyllithium solution, which reacts violently with water and is spontaneously flammable in air. Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity describes the tragedy and the events following it in an in-depth piece for iWatch News. About the repurcussions, including legal proceedings that are now underway, Morris writes:

[Sangji’s boss Professor Patrick] Harran and the University of California’s Board of Regents will be prosecuted for the fire in Room 4221. Harran will be the first American university professor to be accused of a felony in connection with the death of a worker. Poor lab safety practices at UCLA will be brought to light, and researchers around the world will take notice.

“Sheri was a young girl who was working in a laboratory in one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world,” says Sangji’s older sister, Naveen, a surgical resident in Boston. “There should be no safer place for someone to go to work. Instead, she never got to come back home.”


Sangji’s death and the prosecution of Harran and the UC regents have had far-reaching effects. Faculty members, department heads and deans at research institutions have followed the developments with consternation: Might they, too, be criminally liable if something happened in one of their labs? A federal investigation revealed that there had been at least 120 lab accidents at universities between 2001 and 2011.

On Friday, the criminal case against the regents was dropped after they agreed to adopt a lengthy list of safety measures and establish a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name. The case against Harran, who faces up to 4 1/2 years in jail, continues. His arraignment was postponed until September 5.

At the Scientific American blog Doing Good Science, Janet D. Stemwedel discusses Harran’s claims and legal strategy, and offers this reminder to principal investigators in academic labs:

Finally, a piece of free advice to PIs worrying that they may find themselves facing criminal charges should their students, postdocs, or technicians choose not to wear lab coats or other safety gear: It is perfectly reasonable to establish, and enforce, a lab policy that states that those choosing to opt out of the required safety equipment are also opting out of access to the laboratory.

Thanks to the efforts of Naveen Sangji and Cal/OSHA, awareness of the importance of lab safety has increased. It remains to be seen how effective initiatives and policies created after Sheri Sangji’s death will be at preventing similar tragedies.

In other news:

NBC Bay Area: Investigative reporters in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys found dozens of children working in the fields; some started work at age 8 or 10, and often labor for 9 or 10 hours a day in heat that tops 100 degrees.

New York Times: An autopsy concluded that former NFL player Ray Easterling, who played for the Atlanta Falcons for eight seasons in the 1970s, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain damage associated with head trauma. Easterling had been struggling with apparent dementia and depression for years, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 62.

Agence France Press: Annie Thebaud-Mony, who directs France’s National Institute for Health and Medical Research and is the spokesperson for Ban Asbestos France, has declined the country’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, in protest over official inaction toward those who harm workers’ health.

ABC News (Australia): Many of the RAAF firefighters whose training sites involved toxic-chemical-laden fires with minimal protection are suffering from leukemia and other severe health problems — and they’re asking Australia’s government for compensation.

NIOSH Science Blog: Well-designed workplace policies and programs – including flexibility, training and skill-building, and management of noise hazards – can optimize the health of aging workers, and can benefit all workers regardless of age.

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