As most blog readers have undoubtedly heard, at the July 27 court hearing for the University of California and UC Los Angeles chemistry professor Patrick Harran, the district attorney dropped the charges against UC in exchange for UC acknowledging responsibility for the laboratory conditions that led to Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji’s death, following an explicit lab safety program, and establishing a memorial scholarship in Sangji’s name.
Harran’s attorneys, meanwhile, are trying to get the charges against him dropped by attacking the credibility of California Department of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator Brian Baudendistel. A defense motion filed on July 26 alleges that Baudendistel was involved a 1985 murder. Baudendistel would have been 16 at the time of the crime. In a follow-up story on C&EN Online this week, Michael Torrice reported on California juvenile records law and how likely it is that the allegations will derail the case, if the person convicted was indeed the same Baudendistel.
The defense motion also claims that a 2009 Cal/OSHA report written by Baudendistel “mischaracterizes or ignores outright testimony and other evidence…that tends to prove that Professor Harran did not violate any health or safety regulation, much less that he did so ‘willfully.’” After the hearing on the 27th, Harran’s attorney handed out not just the motion but many pages of supporting material. Included in that package were selected transcript pages (pdfs) of the interviews conducted by Baudendistel to prepare his report. (The report and its supporting material are exempt from public records laws in California because they are part of pending litigation.)
Below, I explore how well that supporting material bolsters the motion’s assertions. Anything in bold is a point from the defense motion. Typos were likely copied verbatim from source material (e.g. “Baudendistal,” “alco-lithiums,” “in side”), but it is entirely possible that I introduced a few of my own. For a refresher on key factors in the incident, here’s a blog post summary and an extensive story.
Investigator Baudendistel specifically affirmatively declares that he does not understand chemical scientific literature. (O’Leary interview, page 14)
The motion references discussion between Baudendistel and Sangji’s undergraduate research adviser, Pomona College chemistry professor Daniel O’Leary, about Sangji’s two papers published in Organic Letters and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Safety Zone readers, what say you? Do you think it is necessary for a Cal/OSHA investigator to understand that type of literature to understand the incident that injured Sangji?
The very technical bulletin upon which Investigator Baudendistel relies [to assess Sangji's experimental technique] specifically states: “Some chemists still believe that very specialized equipment and complicated techniques are required for handling air-sensitive reagents. This is often not the case.” (Sigma Aldrich Technical Bulletin AL-134, version from March 1997)
The techniques for handling air-sensitive reagents probably are reasonably straightforward for many chemists. That said, the bulletin recommends several things that Sangji didn’t do, in particular use a 1 ft- to 2 ft-long needle on her syringe or, even better, cannulate volumes greater than 50 mL. And, of course, just because a technique may be straightforward, that doesn’t mean that using it with a particular reagent isn’t inherently dangerous.
Graduate Student Researcher Andrew Roberts, who accompanied UCLA EH&S during its inspection of Professor Harran’s lab and had received UCLA’s laboratory safety training, testified that (Roberts interview, page 127):
- Lab coats were available in a stock room in Young Hall at UCLA.
- There were lab coats available to “anyone working in Professor Harran’s lab[.]“
But Roberts’s transcript also contains these statements, which directly relate to the charge for failing to require that employees wear work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment (California Code of Regulations, Title 8, Section 3383(b)):
Baudendistal: Okay. During the training that you received in September, 2008, was that issued discussed? Regarding the use of a lab coat.
Roberts: It was – it was discussed, but it wasn’t discussed whether or not it was required or not.
Baudendistal: Okay. Did he give you, did Dr. Harran give you, any specific instructions relative to the use of the lab coast.
Roberts: Uhm – no. Not that I remember.
Baudendistal: Okay. Where there occasions when you were working in the lab that you didn’t wear a lab coat?
Baudendistal: How often did you not wear a lab coat?
Roberts: Uhm – pretty much every day I didn’t wear a lab coat.
Baudendistal: Was that – was that a common practice, within the lab you were working in?
Roberts: Uh – yes.
UCLA Chemical Safety Officer Wheatley testified that (Wheatley interview, page 219 and 221):
- Lab coats were available in Professor Harran’s lab during his October 2008 inspection.
- At the time of the accident, the UCLA laboratory safety manual “suggest[ed] wearing a lab coat in the lab.”
See comment on previous point. Also from the Wheatley interview:
Baudendistal: But you, you estimate that about 20% of the personnel inside the [UCLA labs in general]…
Wheatley: Yeah, that’s just roughly…
Baudendistal: …not wearing…
Baudendistal: …a lab coat, correct?
Baudendistal: Do you know if there was any direct policy by UCLA that lab coats were worn while personnel are in the lab?
Baudendistal: At that time, anyway.
Wheatley: No. Other than what it says in the lab safety manual, how it suggests wearing a lab coat in the lab.
Baudendistal: So is it accurate to say that there was no, there was no rule that a lab coat be worn in side the lab?
Wheatley: Yeah, I don’t there there’s any rule, like major policy by the university.
Baudendistal: Was it your understanding that it was a discretionary matter?
Baudendistal: And discretionary between who?
Wheatley: Discretionary between whoever’s working in the lab. It could be the PI, who makes it discretionary for the whole lab group, or the workers themselves.
Baudendistal: But it was not, there was no rule that lab coats were required to be worn while in the lab.
Professor Daniel O’Leary, Ms. Sangji’s chemistry thesis advisor from Pomona College, stated that:
- Ms. Sangji received laboratory safety training at Pomona College at least three times, including a video regarding fires (although “not necessarily” a laboratory fire). (O’Leary interview, page 3)
From the transcript:
O’Leary: Every summer there’s like a safety orientation meeting that the students were obligated to participate in… Well, it – my memory’s pretty fuzzy. I know that he had, he had some, some sections in there on, actually on fires. Because I know he showed a video of a, you know, how fast a fire can accelerate and get out of control. It wasn’t necessarily a lab fire. It was I think it was something that had been staged in a dorm room or something like that. He talked about kind of knowing your, you know, chemists work in hoods, right? In fume hoods with pull-down sashes. And he talked, he talked a lot about making sure that the indicators, the air flow indicators were, were properly working. And not to have your hood too crowded to obstruct air flow. He also talked about anger management issues in the workplace. So, it was kind of a broad spectrum thing. It never was, you know, specific to pyrophorics or, or any particular class of compound.
- Ms. Sangji’s undergraduate chemistry work would have exposed her to flammable solvents. (O’Leary interview, page 4-5)
But never pyrophoric reagents: “She wouldn’t have had any, any experience in my lab working with something as, as nasty as t-butyl lithium,” O’Leary says. The available evidence indicates that Sangji handled tert-butyllithium only once before the day of the fire.
- Typically, when people are working with alco-lithiums, “they’re either going to be working with a syringe or…a cannula transfer…” (O’Leary interview, page 6)
- There is a “mix of opinion” in the chemistry community regarding whether to use a glass or polypropylene syringe to transfer alco-lithiums. (O’Leary interview, page 6)
Correct, both in terms of what O’Leary says and in what I’ve heard in the three years I’ve been reporting on the incident. But O’Leary also notes that he would have used a syringe for transfers around 10 mL and a cannula for more than 40 mL. He also discusses why polypropylene syringes can be difficult to use, because some organic solvents can make them swell so they don’t move smoothly.
- The method of transferring alco-lithiums depends on the type of research being done, and that “[u]sually the traditions [of using a syringe or cannula method] just get carried along.” (O’Leary interview, page 11) Incredibly, the BOI Report omits this statement from Professor O’Leary, yet excoriates Professor Harran for making nearly the same precise statement.
I read O’Leary’s statement differently. In context, it seems that he was focusing on groups that use glove boxes versus groups that do reactions in the hood:
O’Leary: And it’s really a matter of – I don’t want to use the word “style” loosely here but it’s really a matter of how the group typically has always been doing it, you know. Some groups are equipped with glove boxes and they might prefer to have their alkyl lithium reactions run in a glove box. Other groups may just traditionally always do it with syringe or with cannula transfers. Usually the traditions just get carried along.
And here is the relevant passage on Harran from the BOI report (quote is from page 15; the relevant interview excerpt is on report page 75):
However, Dr. Harran later admitted that the Aldridge AL 134 bulletin was utilized as a “general reference” only and that training relative to the handling of t-Butyllithium was based on “knowledge” passed down from one generation of researcher to another.
Dr. Harran confirmed that he did not review the procedures outlined in the AL-134 Bulletin with Victim Sangji, nor did he inquire whether she [Sangji] was aware of the procedures outlined in Technical Bulleting 134. Dr. Harran also admitted that he never discussed with Victim Sangji the risks associated with the use of t-butyllithium.
This is likely in part the basis for the charge for lack of training, in addition to the fact that Sangji received no general lab safety training at UCLA. Employers are legally required to ensure that employees are trained on “the measures employees can take to protect themselves from these hazards, including specific procedures the employer has implemented to protect employees from exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as appropriate work practices, emergency procedures, and personal protective equipment to be used” (California Code of Regulations, Title 8, Section 5191(f)(4)). It’s not hard to see how proper training can easily go downhill with oral knowledge transfer and no quality control, and that’s likely at least part of the reason the UC court agreement mandates written standard operating procedures.
- People reading Ms. Sangji’s publications may conclude that she “had a massive amount of synthetic [chemistry] experience” (O’Leary interview, page 14)
- Ms. Sangji had “a pretty significant amount of experience in kind of traditional synthetic organic [chemical] manipulation” (O’Leary interview, page 15)
I can’t tell whether the defense is using the first quote to present Sangji as experienced or to imply that Harran was overly influenced by her resume. If the point is to say that Sangji was an experienced synthetic chemist, the quote is taken entirely out of context:
O’Leary: In fact both of these papers were accounts of analytical chemistry that she did in the lab. So really she had no – her contributions to these papers was purely taking measurements of compounds, not doing any synthesis. And they’re collaborative papers. Like the first paper, the 2006 paper, we wrote with a group at Boston University. And the 2005 paper was written in collaboration with a group over at Irvine. Now, both of those groups are kind of synthetic groups. So some people might be looking at her papers and they might be concluding that she had a massive amount of synthetic experience that went into those papers. But her contributions again were purely from a measurement standpoint.
The second quote is accurate. And O’Leary says this earlier in the interview (page 2):
O’Leary: For the first summer, she did mainly analytical chemistry, which means she really didn’t do any traditional, organic chemistry. She was really taking measurements on compounds. And um that work actually is what constitutes her two published papers that a lot of people point to. … And the next two summers, she did mainly peptide synthesis work … That entails kind of traditional, synthetic, organic manipulations – running reactions, working up reactions, isolating products, purifying products, more analytical chemistry to kind of prove the identify of the products.
But, again, none of this involved pyrophoric reagents.
Hui Ding, a post-doctoral researcher in Professor Harran’s temporary lab, stated that Professor Hurley was “oftentimes” working with Ms. Sangji, because “she’s working on some compounds that Professor Hurley is working on.” (Ding interview, page 344)
- Indeed, the BOI report misstates Dr. Ding’s testimony, as the Report states that “Dr. Ding stated that Paul Hurley would occasionally work with Victim Sangji, as they were working on related research. (BOI report, page 53)
- Given Professor Harran’s statements that Dr. Hurley was responsible for training Ms. Sangji (BOI report, page 53), contrasted against that the Report’s conclusion that “it is clear that Victim Sangji was not properly trained, if at all…”, the Report’s failure to accurately state Dr. Ding’s testimony is nothing short of incredulous.
The first point is correct, at least as far as the cited page is concerned. I don’t have the rest of the transcript. As for the second point, in the two transcript pages provided, Ding really does not give much information about Hurley’s interactions with Sangji or Sangji’s training. The defense did not choose to include anything from Paul Hurley’s transcript, which would probably have better information. Also, the motion itself fails to accurately state Hurley’s title–as far as I’m aware, he was not and is not “Professor.”
William Peck, former manager of UCLA EH&S, stated that t-BuLi was a “pretty common” compound in the organic chemistry section. (Peck interview, page 403)
Wei Feng Chen, a post-doctoral researcher in Professor Harran’s temporary lab, stated that there were lab coats available to personnel in storage on the third floor and there were funds to obtain lab coats as well. (Chen interview, page 310)
But see earlier points about whether people thought lab coats were optional or required.