Category → Accidents
University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran was arraigned today on four felony charges of violating the state labor code. A Los Angeles County judge entered a not guilty plea on Harran’s behalf for all four counts. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in the professor’s lab
Another judge ruled last month that Harran should face trial on three charges, each citing a violation of a separate state safety regulation: failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees. The Los Angeles County District Attorneys added a fourth charge that essentially expanded on the clothing and protective equipment charge.
The new charge is for violating occupational safety regulation 3383(a), which states “body protection may be required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.” The original charge cited part (b) of that regulation: “Clothing appropriate for the work being done shall be worn. Loose sleeves, tails, ties, lapels, cuffs, or other loose clothing which can be entangled in moving machinery shall not be worn.”
At the arraignment today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, said Harran would not enter a plea because the defense team planned to file a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges. Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum argued that the defense could file the motion after the plea. The judge then entered the not guilty plea for Harran.
The case was assigned to a new courtroom and the next court date was set for June 27. The June 27 appearance will be a status update to see how ready both sides are for a trial.
Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder had a second prehearing conference today regarding charges of possessing and intending to make explosives on campus. The judge scheduled Snyder’s preliminary hearing to start on July 26, says Michael Cabral, assistant chief deputy district attorney in the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
As part of the case, the prosecution wants to review Snyder’s medical records, a move that Snyder opposes. The judge scheduled a hearing on that matter for May 30.
C&EN’s Michael Torrice reported earlier today:
Chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran will face trial on three felony counts of violating California state labor code, a Los Angeles County judge ruled today. The case stems from a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab [at the University of California, Los Angeles,] that led to the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.
See yesterday’s post for background.
Other coverage (will update as I see more):
- Los Angeles Times (reporter in courtroom)
- Westwood-Century City Patch (reporter in courtroom)
- Can’t quite tell if this reporter was in the courtroom: Reuters
- Media outlets working from secondary information: Associated Press shorter & longer; LA Weekly; Chronicle of Higher Education; Science Careers; Nature News Blog; UK Daily Mail; The Scientist
- In the chemistry blogosphere: Chemjobber first & second (with many comments); Doing Good Science; ChemBark (also with many comments)
- Chemistry Reddit
- UCLA chancellor’s statement
- National Law Journal
- Chemistry World
Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Motion to dismiss or reduce the charges
University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran returns to court tomorrow to conclude a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab. The judge hearing the case is expected to rule whether to send the case forward to trial.
The fire started when Sangji was handling a pyrophoric compound, tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. She was trying to transfer the reagent by syringe when the plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the solution to air. The tert-butyllithium ignited and Sangji’s clothes caught fire. Several aspects of the incident indicate that Sangji did not know how to handle the material safely and was not prepared for something to go wrong.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present evidence to a judge, who will decide if there is enough to take the case forward to a trial. The court heard testimony in November and December last year. Recaps of the testimony can be read here: Day one, two, three, four, five, and six.
At the end of a preliminary hearing, it is standard for the defense to ask the judge to dismiss or reduce the charges. In this case, Harran’s attorneys asked to file their arguments in writing. Over the last few months, Harran’s attorneys filed a motion “to dismiss; or, in the alternative, to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors.” The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office responded to that motion. Then Harran’s attorneys replied to the response. The judge is expected to rule on Friday whether the case will go to trial with the original charges, the case will go to trial with reduced charges, or the case is dismissed.
The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board last week released an interim analysis of the Aug. 6, 2012 refinery fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. The fire started when a corroded pipe ruptured in a crude oil processing unit. CSB identified several failures that led to the fire: “Missed opportunities to apply inherently safer technologies, a failure to recognize and correct workplace hazards, and the lack of industrial safeguards,” reported C&EN’s Jeff Johnson on Friday. CSB’s report is available here, and a Chevron internal report is available here.
One notable set of images in the CSB report is on pdf page 11. The set includes four photographs taken from across the Bay that show the initial hydrocarbon vapor cloud that formed when the pipe burst, followed by the black smoke from the fire. Amazingly, no one was killed when the leaking material ignited. From CSB’s video about the incident and its findings:
A decision was finally made to begin an emergency shut down of the crude unit. But it was too late. Suddenly, the pipe ripped open. A vapor cloud formed and rapidly expanded, as the large inventory of hydrocarbons in the distillation tower started to vent through the ruptured pipe. The vapor cloud immediately spread over hundreds of feet, engulfing all 19 people who had gathered nearby. The firefighters and operators struggled to escape through the dense hydrocarbon cloud, unable to see. They had to feel their way out, some on their hands and knees. At approximately 6:30 p.m., two minutes after the huge vapor cloud formed, the hydrocarbons ignited. One firefighter was trapped inside a fire engine when it was suddenly engulfed in flames. He radioed for help. … But when he received no response, he assumed everyone else was dead. To escape the inferno, he fled through what witnesses described as a wall of fire.
That fire engine was destroyed by the fire.The Chevron report argues that the white vapor cloud itself was not flammable. Instead, material still leaking from the pipe either auto-ignited or dislodged a light fixture, exposing wiring that could have ignited the stream. Chevron’s internal report also says, “The response and assessment after the discovery of the leak did not fully recognize the risk of piping rupture and the possibility of auto-ignition” (Causal Factor 1, pdf page 21).
Last but not least, here’s CSB’s video:
First up, our thoughts are with everyone in the Boston and West, Texas, areas today.
Secondly, on the fertilizer explosion in West: Although early reports all said that the incident involved anhydrous ammonia, C&EN’s Jeff Johnson reported yesterday that ammonium nitrate was likely the explosive material at West Fertilizer Co. Today, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times both say the facility had ammonium nitrate. The NYT gives numbers: “540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate on the site and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.” The current toll is 12 confirmed dead, 60 missing, more than 200 injured, and many left homeless. I’m curious whether zoning laws actually allowed that amount of hazardous material so close to a residential area, two schools, and a nursing home. For local coverage, see the Waco Tribune and Dallas Morning News.
Now on to other news from the past few weeks, skipping incidents and focusing other things that I’ve collected:
- Mark at Chemistry Blog posted about his grandfather’s chemical legacy:
A day later I had sorted everything out into three categories: Category 1, mostly harmless (salts, some buffers etc). Category 2, most definitely not harmless (concentrated acids and such like). And the third category I called “What the f*** has he got here!”
- In the Pipeline posted a video, “made at some point by some French lunatics,” that nicely illustrates the hazards of working with chlorine trifluoride
- A debate on whether chemistry demos overly rely on explosions emerged on Twitter; ChemistryWorld gathered the tweets at Storify while Philosophically Distrubed blogged that “chemistry explosions are all bang and no buck“
- It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but it’s worth a reminder: Students and postdocs, be aware that you may not be eligible for workers’ compensation if you’re injured in a lab (reminder courtesy of this story about injured student athletes being responsible for their health expenses)
- NOAA released updated Chemical Reactivity Worksheet software
- Accounts of Chemical Research published a special issue on Environmental Health & Safety Considerations for Nanotechnology
- As OSHA emphasizes safety, long-term health risks fester says the New York Times, in a piece that looks at exposure of furniture workers and n-propylbromide-containing glues
- The Pump Handle covered worker safety provisions in the Senate immigration reform bill
- The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says that the Hanford nuclear waste treatment plant “has design problems that could lead to chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns“
- The April issue of the AIChE’s Process Safety Beacon is out: Have you heard a pressure relief valve chatter?
- The National Academy of Sciences published a review of the Department of Labor’s Site Exposure Matrix Database, which DOL uses to determine compensation for occupational exposure claims at Department of Energy facilities
Post updated April 22, 2013, with a paywall-free link to the workers compensation story.
The UC Davis chemist accused of possessing and intending to make explosive devices on the University of California, Davis, campus appeared in court again today for a pre-hearing conference. The case was continued to another pre-hearing conference set for April 30, says Michael J. Cabral, assistant chief deputy district attorney at the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
Snyder, 32, injured his hand in an explosion in his on-campus apartment in January. He faces 17 charges of possession and intent to make destructive devices, reckless disposal of hazardous waste, and possession of firearms on campus.
The Woodland, Calif., Daily Democrat reports that Snyder’s defense attorney had a short conversation with the judge before the new conference date was set.
Earlier this week, the Sacramento Bee reported that UC Davis has spent more than $23,000 on the incident so far. The total comes from expenses such as overtime for police and firefighters. It does not include expenses for chemical disposal or environmental tests.
The California Aggie reports that Snyder’s research appointment ended on Jan. 31. Snyder was released from jail on $2 million bail on Feb. 20. “Under the conditions of his release, Snyder is not allowed to return to UC Davis without notifying the UC Davis Police Department (UCDPD), said Claudia Morain, UC Davis spokesperson, in an email interview,” the Aggie says.
3/15/2013 UPDATE: ABC News10 in Sacramento had a story last night that included specifics on some of the chemicals found in Snyder’s apartment. An image of an evidence log lists:
- 1 sample potassium perchlorate plus original container collected
- 1 sample triple seven plus original container collected
- 1 sample aluminum powder
- 1 sample green pyrotechnic fuse and 2 rolls collected
- 1 sample red pyrotechnic fuse and (illegible) collected
- (illegible) smokeless plus original container (illegible)
News10 interviewed James Symes, a chemistry professor at Cosumnes River College. Symes also mentions ammonium perchlorate, class 1 explosives (ammonium perchlorate is one–it’s unclear whether Symes is just referring to that or if there were others), and “chemicals to make explosives.”
Footage of Snyder walking down stairs shows that his hand is no longer bandaged.
Chemistry World reports today that the University of Southampton chemistry graduate student poisoned with thallium and arsenic is slowly recovering. A joint university, police, and U.K. Health & Safety Executive found that the poisoning was neither an accident nor a suicide attempt. “Malicious poisoning remains a possible explanation,” Chemistry World says.
The Health & Safety Executive, the U.K. version of the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, did not cite the university for any health and safety violations, Chemistry World says.
Also from the Chemistry World story:
Sources close to the victim, who wish to remain anonymous, spoke to Chemistry World with the student’s agreement, say he survived a dose of thallium that is usually lethal, and is now fighting to regain the ability to walk. ‘Doctors consider him extremely lucky to be alive,’ one source says. …
‘He is currently continuing a rehab programme in hospital,’ a source says. ‘He’s working towards walking again, but clearly the nerve damage to his limbs was rather extensive and regrowth takes time. Currently, standing up is extremely difficult and he’s been in a wheelchair for some time now. He has recovered from hair loss and has most of his hand movement back. I think he would quite like it if more people appreciated the severity of it.