The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed charges yesterday against the University of California and UC Los Angeles professor Patrick Harran for felony violations of labor laws in the death of chemistry researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.
Sangji died three years ago from injuries sustained in a laboratory fire.
My story should post online soon and will appear in Monday’s issue of C&EN. In the meantime, here are links to other coverage and blogosphere/twittersphere discussion:
- @latimes – Felony charges filed against UC and a UCLA chemistry professor after fatal laboratory fire
- @AP – Charges in UCLA lab death first of its kind in US
- @Chemjobber – UC Regents and Prof. Patrick Harran to face 3 felony charges in death of Sheri Sangji
- @ProfLikeSubst – Lab safety and who is responsible
- Mitch at Chemistry Blog – Arrest warrant issued for Patrick Harran
- @ChemBark – UCLA professor Patrick Harran charged in Sheri Sangji’s death
- @Dereklowe – The UCLA lab fatality: Criminal charges filed
- @davidperrey – Felony charges for UCLA and professor Harran
- @discodermolide – Professorial oversight, availability bias and the Sheri Sangji case
- @macdrifter – UCLA professor charged in death of researcher
- Captain Pegleg – Felony charges in UCLA lab accident
- @Richvn (Nature) – Chemistry professor faces criminal charges after researcher’s death
- Beryl Benderly (Science Careers) – Professor and UCLA criminally charged in the death of Sheri Sangji
- No blog posts, but check out for Twitter discussion: @biochembelle, @piperjklemm
For my part right now, I’d like to address a few frequent comments I keep hearing or seeing:
- “Sangji was a graduate student” – No, she was a staff researcher. She was therefore also indisputably an employee. Whether graduate students or postdocs are considered employees is a gray area that affects things such as whether they are eligible for worker’s compensation or OSHA agencies have oversight authority.
- “Sangji was an experienced chemist” – She was experienced in one specific context, which is that she was experienced for a 23-year-old who had graduated the previous spring with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She was no more experienced than a first- or at most second-year graduate student.
- “Sangji was working alone” – There was someone in the lab with her and someone else in an adjacent office. It’s unclear, however, if either knew what Sangji was doing experimentally.
- “Sangji was killed because she wasn’t wearing a lab coat” – The lack of a lab coat was one of several factors in the incident. Nevertheless, had Sangji been wearing a flame-resistant lab coat (not a standard polyester/cotton one!), her injuries probably would have been less severe. It would also have helped had she gone straight for the safety shower or stopped/dropped/rolled to put out the flames.
The other thing I see floating around the internet today is variations on: “Sangji chose to do the experiment the way she did, she killed herself, the professor shouldn’t shoulder the blame.” But in California, at least (and probably elsewhere, but I’m most familiar with California), employers and employee managers are legally required to uphold occupational safety or health standards. That means that employers must train, retrain, remind, and enforce. And that’s why industrial workers get fired for not working safely–because if their employer allowed them to keep doing so, their employer would be liable for whatever bad things might happen.
Which brings us to why UC (Sangji’s employer) and Harran (Sangji’s manager) are now on the hook in this case. From the charges, this is what was legally expected of them:
- Correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner – an inspection two months before the fire identified multiple problems in the lab, including people not wearing personal protective equipment, and it’s unclear how many of the problems were addressed
- Require clothing appropriate for the work to be worn – but Sangji was wearing a polyester shirt and no flame-resistant lab coat
- Provide chemical safety training to employees. Implement safe work practices, emergency procedures and personal protective equipment – Sangji did not receive university Environmental Health & Safety training, it appears that one-on-one training was lacking, she did not use the procedure recommended by the chemical manufacturer or Harran, and she was not wearing personal protective equipment
Legally, this also hinges on the word “willfully”: Did UCLA and Harran do their best to enforce safe work behavior or did they let things slide?
For those who still think that a professor should not be held liable for what happens in his or her lab, let me ask this: If a UCLA facilities manager sent a worker up to trim a tree without ensuring that the worker knew how to handle a chainsaw or that the worker used fall-prevention equipment, and the worker somehow got killed, would you be shocked by criminal charges against the manager? If not, then why hold a professor to a different standard?
Updated to add some links I missed earlier.