The University of California and Dr. Patrick Harran, a chemistry professor at UCLA, have been charged with three felony counts of “willfully violating occupational health and safety standards”. Yes, you read that right: the University itself is being charged with felonies.
The charges stem from the death of Sheri Sangji in December of 2008. Ms. Sangji was employed in Dr. Harran’s lab:
Sangji was transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin, causing second- and third-degree burns.
She died 18 days after the incident.
I’m kind of hoping Derek Lowe will have some comment on this, and I’m willing to listen to arguments on the subject. My gut feeling is that the felony indictments are appropriate: Ms. Sangji should not have been working without a flame-resistant lab coat, and it isn’t clear to me that she was provided with appropriate equipment, training, or supervision. This is what trials are for, of course, and details may come out during the trial that will change my mind. But:
Two months before the fatal fire, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen deficiencies in the same lab, according to internal investigative and inspection reports reviewed by The Times. The inspectors found that employees were not wearing requisite protective lab coats and that flammable liquids and volatile chemicals were stored improperly.
But the required corrective actions were not taken before the fatal fire, the records showed.
Edited to add: Many thanks to Chemjobber both for pointing us to Derek Lowe’s commentary, and for providing a link to an article from Chemical and Engineering News summarizing the incident in more detail.
Also, thanks to Lawrence for a somewhat related link, which we had missed: the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board report on the Texas Tech lab explosion in January of 2010. I swear that I covered the explosion at the time, or shortly afterwards, but I can’t find the link now. In any case, the report is pretty much what you’d expect: “the physical hazard risks inherent in the research were not effectively assessed, planned for, or mitigated; the university lacked safety management accountability and oversight; and previous incidents with preventative lessons were not documented, tracked, and formally communicated”.
(Short summary: the lab was working on a government project involving detection of explosives. Part of their work involved making something called nickel hydrazine perchlorate, which goes bang rather easily. The lab had been making small amounts (100 milligrams) but the students involved in the production of NHP that day decided, for various reasons, to scale things up and produce about 10 grams. The NHP went bang while one of the students was trying to break up “clumps” in a mortar and pestle.)