Will UCLA And a Professor Be Punished For Causing the Death Of a Lab Tech, Or Is UC Above The Law?
By Joan Lichterman
UC attorneys and spinmeisters are working overtime to defend the regents, UCLA, and a UCLA chemistry professor in Superior Court against felony charges for willfully violating workplace health and safety standards resulting in the death of a 23-year-old lab assistant. The arraignment is scheduled for Thursday, February 2, and safety advocates fear that a plea bargain will be entered at that time with an inappropriate sentence.
Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji was fatally injured on 12/29/08 by a flash fire in the lab of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran while transferring a highly hazardous chemical that ignites when exposed to air. Sangji died 18 excruciating days later as a result of burns to 43% of her body and inhalation exposure. On the day of the fire, the recent Pomona College graduate was 11 weeks into a job she had taken to earn money to go to law school so she could make a difference in the world. Tragically, it is her death that many of us now hope will make a difference by improving laboratory safety at the
University of California and in academic labs throughout the U.S.
After the incident, UCLA admitted it violated three sections of the California Administrative Code (occupational safety and health regulations) and paid penalties to Cal/OSHA. It also paid fines after a second Cal/OSHA investigation in August 2009 found more than a dozen safety violations, including some that were noted earlier but not corrected. The subsequent investigation also revealed a serious injury had been suffered by a paid graduate student researcher in the very same department a year before Sangji's fatal fire. That earlier incident had never been reported to Cal/OSHA. Then, the fatality investigator learned that a small explosion in the selfsame department injured another graduate student researcher who was not wearing safety goggles just a week before the Sangji incident. Although UCLA safety officials were aware of the earlier incidents, they hadn't triggered a review of safety practices. Perhaps changes then could have prevented Sangji's death.
The safety officials explained that “it was normal practice to discuss the facts of an incident with the Principal Investigator, but that no action was taken against a Principal Investigator for not enforcing the use of PPE (personal protective equipment) in their labs.” One official indicated that use of PPE in the University’s Lab Safety Manual constituted a recommendation and “was not necessarily a requirement.”
The criminal charges were filed by LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley on December 27, 2011, days before the statute of limitations were to expire. An open letter to the DA from the Sangji family on Christmas Day likely prodded the DA to file the charges. Though UCLA officials admit they still have problems in its labs, they reacted to the criminal charges with surprise and outrage. Chancellor Gene Block called the criminal charges against the university and Professor Harran "unwarranted," spoke of how much UCLA has done (and still needs to do) to improve lab safety, and then blamed the victim for not preventing her own death. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Kevin Reed, vice chancellor for legal affairs, painted Sangji as a “trained chemist.”
The Cal/OSHA fatality investigator presents a very different picture based on his findings and a discussion of Sangji’s experience with her undergraduate advisor at Pomona College, as well as documents obtained from Norac Pharma, where Sangji had worked for several months before starting at UCLA. “As a junior level chemist [at Norac], she was closely supervised and did not perform any independent experimental work in the lab without direct guidance from her supervisor due to her limited prior laboratory experience.”
Are the felony charges unwarranted? Cal/OSHA's Bureau of Investigations doesn't think so. Its report supporting criminal charges, completed December 23, 2009, should weigh heavily on the DA more than balancing UC's pressure to settle the matter quickly, quietly, without a trial, and even perhaps without a sentencing report that would bring out more facts. The BOI report concludes:
“... the laboratory safety practices utilized by UCLA prior to Victim Sangji's death, were so defective as to render the University's required Chemical Hygiene Plan and Injury and Illness Prevention Program essentially non-existent. The lack of adequate lab safety training and documentation, lack of effective hazard communication practices, and repeated failure to correct persistent and repeated safety violations within University labs, were all causal deficiencies that led to a systematic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA.”
On January 27 a coalition of family members of Sheri Sangji, along with the labor union that represented her, safety advocates, and an organization of family members who have lost others to workplace fatalities, urged the DA "to prosecute the case to the fullest extent of the law."
Frances Schreiberg, an attorney who previously directed Cal/OSHA's Bureau of Investigations, said Professor Harran was utterly indifferent "to the health and safety of his laboratory personnel" and "could have been charged with felony manslaughter."
"No one can erase the agony and suffering Sheri endured," said her sister Naveen, "but by allowing a jury to debate the facts of the case, you can bring about accountability and justice, and thereby save other innocent lives."
Tammy Miser, founder and executive director of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, said "We are eager for the DA to stand firm and force the University and the chemistry professor to be accountable in a court of law. It must not end now with some backdoor deal.... Sheri Sangji’s death was 100 percent preventable had basic safety precautions been implemented in the UCLA lab. That makes her family's suffering all the worse, and it is why UCLA should be held criminally responsible."
And University Professional and Technical Employees – Communications Workers of America Local 9119, which represents 12,000 researchers and techs at UC, many of whom work in labs, applauded the District Attorney for filing these charges. "Like other employers, universities must be held accountable for the safety of their staff as well as students. Criminal prosecution will be the single most effective deterrent to unsafe laboratory conditions in the future at UCLA and at other universities.”
Chemists around the country are watching the Sangji case closely. As one lab safety professional stated, “the UCLA case could be ‘a game-changer.’”
District Attorney Steve Cooley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (213) 974-3512, and by fax at (213) 974-1484.
Joan Lichterman is health and safety director of University Professional and Technical Employees, UPTE-CWA 9119.