The big news of the chemical safety beat this week was that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office filed felony charges against the University of California and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. I’ve written a news story and two blog posts on the topic already; here are some additional links from yesterday and today (if I’ve missed anything, post it in the comments):
- @ChemBark – Some thoughts on the UCLA/Harran/Sangji case
- @discodermolide – Is it too early to ask for automation in lab safety?
- @Chemjobber – 60 mL syringes can get unstable; Innnnnnnteresting: UCLA vice chancellor of legal affairs Kevin Reed on the Sheri Sangji case; UCLA’s PR strategy, plain as day: a tragedy, not a crime
- From Reddit Chemistry – Arrest warrant issued for Patrick Harran
There’s also some Twitter discussion about whether there’s too much emphasis on the fact that Sangji wasn’t wearing a lab coat. First, I’ll note that there were several problems with Sangji’s experiment that day:
- she was syringing the tert-butyl lithium (tBuLi) rather than cannulating
- she was using a large, plastic syringe that would have been impossible to dry and difficult to handle
- she was using a too-short needle and likely had to tip up the bottle to get to the liquid, making the syringe even more difficult to handle
- she had an open flask of hexane in the hood
And when all of that led, somehow, to the syringe plunger coming out of the barrel and the tBuLi igniting everything nearby, Sangji further wasn’t wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) – a flame-resistant lab coat. Such a lab coat might not have prevented the fire entirely, but it would have slowed it and likely reduced how badly Sangji was burned in the time it took to put out the flames.
Another critical component to the incident is whether Sangji had prepared herself for the worst that could happen and at least mentally rehearsed the appropriate response: get to the shower. From the Cal/OSHA interview with the person who was in the lab with Sangji, it sounds like she panicked and ran around, fanning the flames.
All of this, of course, goes to training: Was she trained to know the best experimental procedure? Was she trained to consider and wear a flame-resistant lab coat? Was she trained to think through the experiment, what might go wrong, and how she should respond? Were her labmates trained in how to handle a panicking colleague with a shirt on fire?
The key point about lab safety is that it’s never just about one thing: It’s not just about minimizing use of hazardous reagents, or engineering and using the safest procedure, or using appropriate PPE, or knowing what to do when things go wrong. It’s about all of those together, with one component as the failsafe for another.
Edited to add Reddit Chemistry link.