With Michael Torrice
A California occupational safety investigator returned to the witness stand of a Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday, Nov. 21, to testify about his inquiry into a 2008 chemistry laboratory fire at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangi died of burns that she sustained in the fire. The testimony was part of an ongoing preliminary hearing for UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, who faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the fire.
Wednesday was the fourth day of the hearing. The investigator, Brian Baudendistel of the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA), had started testifying two days earlier but the court ran out of time for him to complete his testimony that day. The Safety Zone has previously recapped days one, two, and three of the hearing.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum resumed questioning Baudendistel by asking him whether, in a 2009 interview, Harran had told Baudendistel how he would have preferred Sangji to do the tert-butyllithium transfer that started the fire. Baudendistel testified that Harran said he would have preferred that Sangji use a double-tipped needle, or cannula. Sangji had used a syringe for the transfer instead. The syringe plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the pyrophoric chemical to air and starting the fire.
Hum then asked Baudendistel to recap an interview with James Gibson, director of environment, health, and safety (EH&S) at UCLA. Gibson told Baudendistel that the role of EH&S at UCLA is to ensure compliance with laws and provide a safe environment for the campus community, Baudendistel testified. Although EH&S inspects labs periodically to check for proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and for proper chemical segregation and storage, Gibson said that principal investigators are responsible for the safety of their labs and for providing PPE to lab workers. Gibson also said that the university had ongoing issues regarding people not wearing PPE in labs, Baudendistel testified.
Hum next asked Baudendistel to recount his interview with William Peck, who was the manager of occupational safety and employee health at UCLA at the time of the fire. Peck is now retired. Peck also told Baudendistel that principal investigators are responsible for the safety of their labs, and referenced UCLA Policy 811 on environmental health and safety. Peck also said that the most common problem was lab personnel not routinely wearing eye protection or lab coats. Peck told Baudendistel that EH&S had no enforcement authority, and that it was difficult to convince professors to ensure their lab staff wore PPE: “If professors weren’t going to enforce it, it wasn’t going to be enforced,” Peck told Baudendistel, the investigator said. Peck also said that the chemistry department had the most frequent injuries and that was why the department had its own chemical safety officer, Baudendistel said.
Hum subsequently asked Baudendistal to describe what he heard in an interview with Paul Hurley. Hurley received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of British Columbia. He then worked as a postdoc in Harran’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and moved with Harran to UCLA in the summer of 2008. He left Harran’s lab around Thanksgiving, 2008, and took a job at pharmaceutical company Gilead in Edmonton, Alberta. Hurley told Baudendistel that he’d worked with tert-butyllithium at UBC and thereafter, usually in amounts less than 10 mL, although Baudendistel testified that Hurley changed what he said several times.
Hurley also told Baudendistel that he learned how to handle tert-butyllithium by word of mouth, and that he never worked from a written procedure. Hurley also said that he’d use a plastic syringe with either a long or short needle, that he would hold the bottle in his hand rather than clamp it, and that he’d use a syringe the same size as the volume he wanted to transfer. And if he had trouble with the plunger, he’d just pull on it harder.
When Baudendistel showed Hurley a copy of an e-mail from Sangji asking Hurley for assistance with using vinyllithium reagents, Hurley didn’t recall how he responded to the e-mail, Baudendistel said. Hurley told Baudendistel that he may have walked over to Sangji’s hood and spoken with her, instead of e-mailing her. But Hurley didn’t recall warning Sangji about the hazards of using the pyrophoric compound.
When asked about PPE, Hurley said that many people in the lab did not wear lab coats all the time. Hurley also never saw Harran instruct lab members to wear lab coats, Baudendistel testified.
Hum then asked Baudendistel to recap an interview with Mark Potyen, a research scientist at Sigma-Aldrich, which makes the tert-butyllithium used by Sangji. Potyen uses tert-butyllithium in his research, and his description of appropriate handling matches what he told C&EN in 2009: He said that he uses syringes only for volumes less than 40 mL, and plastic syringes only for volumes less than 10 mL. Otherwise, he uses a cannula. When using a syringe, the “rule of thumb” is to use a syringe twice the size of the intended transfer volume, Potyen told Baudendistel. Potyen also said that it’s preferable to use pressure to fill a syringe rather than pulling on the plunger, because pulling on the plunger can draw in air. He also said that luer locks on plastic syringes are not as secure as those on glass syringes. Neither plastic nor glass syringes should be reused for sequential transfers, Potyen said. Proper procedure includes clamping the bottle and minimal PPE includes a fire-resistant lab coat. Potyen said that training at Sigma-Aldrich for pyrophoric transfer is a three- to four-step process in which the trainee is closely supervised until he or she demonstrates proficiency, Baudendistel testified.
The next interview that Hum asked Baudensitel to recount was with Daniel Levin, president of Norac Pharma, where Sangji had worked for a few months between graduating from Pomona College and starting work at UCLA. Sangji had not used tert-butyllithium or other pyrophoric reagents at Norac, and she was closely supervised by senior personnel, Levin told Baudendistel. Levin told C&EN the same thing in 2009. Hum tried to ask Levin whether he thought Sangji should have been working with tert-butyllithium unsupervised, but the judge sustained an objection by defense attorney Thomas O’Brien.
On cross-examination, defense attorney O’Brien first established that Baudendistel had been at Cal/OSHA for three years when he was assigned the UCLA case, and that Baudendistel has no training in chemistry and had not previously investigated either an academic or industrial lab accident.
Then there was this exchange:
O’Brien: Are you familiar with the standard of care in academic laboratories in terms of safety?
Baudendistel: Ah, yes.
O’Brien: Were you aware at the time or did you become aware during the course of this investigation?
Baudendistel: During the course of the investigation.
O’Brien: Are you aware that the standards of care for safety in academic laboratories differ from the standard of care in industrial laboratories?
Baudendistel: I don’t agree with that.
O’Brien: You’re not aware of that, sir?
Baudendistel: I think there is a difference in universities’ compliance with applicable regulations, so in that sense, yes. Is there an accepted difference? I don’t agree with that.
O’Brien: Do you agree that there’s a difference in how safety is conducted in academic universities versus safety conducted in industrial universities?
Baudendistel: Industrial universities…
O’Brien: I’m sorry, industrial laboratories.
Baudendistel: I think that there is less compliance with applicable regulations in the university setting as there is in industry.
O’Brien: Would you agree that there is a difference also in how employees are trained in terms of academic university lab workers versus industrial laboratories?
O’Brien: Would you agree that in industry employees are trained at a much higher standard?
O’Brien went on to ask Baudendistel about when he began his investigation, which coincided with the end of the Cal/OSHA civil investigation and penalties. Baudendistel told O’Brien that he discussed the case with the civil investigator, Ramon Porras, and reviewed Porras’s notes.
O’Brien then tried to get Baudendistel to testify to the facts that Porras did not cite UCLA for any willful violations of California labor code and that the University of California, in a settlement with the district attorney’s office, accepted responsibility for laboratory conditions that led to the fire. Hum objected to both and the objection was sustained. Hum also successfully objected to a question regarding whether Baudendistel was involved in the district attorney’s decision to dismiss charges against the university as part of the settlement.
O’Brien then got into Harran’s background, getting Baudendistel to acknowledge Harran’s degrees and postdoctoral work, as well as honors, awards, lectures, and symposia.
O’Brien: As far as you know, those lectures, were they based on the professor’s academic work or any special safety-type work?
Baudendistel: I did not inquire as to what the content of any of these symposiums were but my assumption was they were for in furtherance of his research.
O’Brien: Lectures such as at Yale and Stanford, is that right?
Baudendistel: If you can point to what item you’re referring to, I can make a comment.
O’Brien: You know what, I’m going to save time and just say that you’ve taken a look at all these pages, is that right?
O’Brien: You understand the professor’s work… Do you know what the professor is working on, by the way?
Baudendistel: Not exactly.
O’Brien: Do you know, ah…
Baudendistel: One of the items was research into an obesity drug and some other research into potential cancer treatments.
O’Brien: The study and synthesis of compounds that may combat diseases such as cancer, is that right?
O’Brien: Where’d you learn that, sir?
Baudendistel: Either from talking with Dr. Harran or in the documents that I reviewed. Might’ve been part of his personnel file. It may have been contained in that. There was other information that I got about his work through the investigation.
O’Brien: Mr. Baudendistel did you read any of the articles published by Professor Harran?
O’Brien: Is it safe to say you don’t have a deep technical understanding of the type of work that Dr. Harran does?
Baudendistel: I think it’s very safe to say that.
O’Brien: Very safe. I join you in that, sir. You understand that Professor Harran joined the faculty you said in the summer of 2008, the inaugural Donald J. Cram chair?
O’Brien: You realize that the professor was recruited by UCLA? In other words, UCLA approached the professor and not the other way around?
Baudendistel: I believe that’s correct.
O’Brien: Can you tell us what the Donald J. Cram chair is?
Baudendistel: I just know that it’s an endowed chair. I don’t know much about it.
O’Brien: Do you know who Donald J. Cram was?
Baudendistel: I believe he was a… I think he was a Nobel prize-winning chemist.
O’Brien: At UCLA?
Baudendistel: I think so.
O’Brien: You realize that the purpose of the chair was to locate one of the most outstanding organic chemists in the world…
Hum: I’m going to object at this point, I think that lauding Dr. Harran has gone on long enough, this is [unintelligible] .
Judge Lisa B. Lench: Just the legal objection, Mr. Hum. Objection sustained.
O’Brien then turned to Sangji’s qualifications as a chemist, referring first to her resume and Pomona College transcript. Baudendistel said that Sangji spent three summers doing lab research, besides the normal chemistry curriculum at Pomona. O’Brien then started to ask Baudendistel to go through the lab classes on Sangji’s transcript. Hum objected several times as to relevance, with O’Brien arguing that it addressed the question of training. Judge Lench asked O’Brien whether he could do so solely by listing classes and not discussing what went on in the classes. Lench let O’Brien go through the transcript for a bit but eventually commented, “Going class by class and grade by grade isn’t, I don’t think, going to get you to where you want to go.”
O’Brien moved on to asking Baudendistel briefly about Sangji’s senior thesis and a recommendation letter from her Pomona adviser to Harran. O’Brien used Pomona student personnel records to establish that Sangji worked as an organic chemistry tutor and in the stockroom.
O’Brien had just gotten to the two papers on which Sangji is an author when the judge decided to break. After conferring with the attorneys, she ended the hearing for the day. Baudendistel is scheduled to return to the stand for cross-examination on Dec. 17, followed by expert witness Neal Langerman on Dec. 18.