Engineering | Safe Engineering

Sheri Sangji's picture being held by two friends. Sheri suffered extensive burns over nearly half her body when a synthetic sweater she was wearing caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

A University of California and UCLA chemistry professor was charged with a felony in connection with a laboratory incident that resulted in a fire killing a staff researcher three years ago.

On December 29th, 2008, twenty three year old Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji was not wearing a protective laboratory coat when an air-sensitive chemical burst into flames during experimentation. As a result, over half of her body was severely burned and she died eighteen days later.

It was from this event that the laboratory safety practices at UCLA were examined and Sangji’s, as well her supervisor professor Patrick Harran, training was evaluated.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office on Tuesday concluded that Harran’s and the UC regents actions warranted three counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards that ultimately lead to Sangji’s death. These two parties were found to have failed to provide, the following: safe working conditions in a timely manner, proper personal protective equipment, and appropriate chemical safety training.

According to a district attorney’s spokeswoman, an arrest warrant was issued for Harran, 42, who faces up to four and a half years in state prison.

As a result of this indictment, UCLA could be fined up to $1.5 million per each of the three counts. UCLA has made a statement that these charges are unwarranted and “outrageous.”

The UCLA vice chancellor for legal affairs, in reference to this incident, has been quoted as stating, “This isn’t justice. What happened in December 2008 was a tragedy, an unfathomable tragedy. It was not a crime.”

UCLA officials and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s investigations have been harshly criticized by Sangji’s family. Sangji’s older sister Naveen has made a comment stating that there are hopes of the case going to trial so that the family may have the opportunity to speak to the court about the events surrounding her sister.

“It won’t bring Sheri back, but we do hope this will help keep other young people safe and keep other families from being destroyed” she said.

Sheri Sanghi was born and raised in Pakistan, graduated from Pomona College in Claremont in 2008, and planned to become a lawyer. She became employed by Harran, a researcher with a growing reputation in organic chemistry, for $46,000 a year while applying to law school.

The incident involved Sangji transferring up to two ounces of t-butyl lithium from a one sealed container to another via a plastic syringe when the device came apart in her hands, causing the chemical compound to become exposed to air which then instantly ignited. She incurred second and third degree burns due to propagation of the fire as a result of a synthetic sweater she wore during the event.

“I cannot describe the level of grief my family has experienced having witnessed the excruciating pain our Sheri suffered in those horrifying days at the burn center — and then losing her forever,” Naveen Sangji said.

After discovering that Sangji had not completed proper training, nor wearing the appropriate personal protective equiptment, Cal/OSHA fined UCLA $31,875 in May of 2009.

“Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab,” Harran said in a statement after of the accident.

The safety inspectors of UCLA discovered over a dozen deficiencies in the same laboratory just two months previous to the fatal fire. Of these violations, it was found that employees were not wearing the required protective lab coats and flammable and violate chemicals were stored improperly.

The records reflected that the necessary corrective actions of these deficiencies were not completed before the fatal fire.

UCLA has instituted various safety improvements, including more thorough lab inspections, more flame-resistant lab coats, and improved training in the use of PPE and air-sensitive chemical handling in response to Sangji’s death.

Executive director of the National Registry of Certified Chemists and former head of the American Chemical Society’s safety division, Russ Phifer, has said that the charges are thought to be the first due to a lab accident.  As an effect, Sangji’s death has led to man improvements in academic laboratory safety nationwide.

“It is probably the single most significant event in getting people’s attention,” he said. “It is unfortunate, but there is nothing like an accident — an injury or a death, and all that it entails — to get people’s attention.”

For more information visit the Los Angeles Times article.

If there are any concerns or questions regarding health and safety within a laboratory, please contact John Crozier at 480-925-8498.