Academic lab safety: One chemist’s observations
Aug28

Academic lab safety: One chemist’s observations

Contributed by Brenna Arlyce Brown, who received her PhD in chemistry in 2013 and is currently working in business development for a research funding organization. She is working on setting up a safety consulting business. A few weeks ago, when reading about the deal that prosecutors made with University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran regarding the lab fire that led to researcher Sheharbano Sangji’s death, I commented on Twitter about how the case affected my graduate research group: “My old PhD boss was sure this can’t happen in our lab-then he found out that I used tBuLi-things soon changed .” This of course sparked questions: “What changed?” “Why didn’t he know that you were using the chemical?” Twitter’s 140 characters were just not enough to answer fully. When I say, “things changed” I certainly don’t mean that I, or my fellow graduate students, were behaving in an unsafe manner. For my own part, I had a standard operating procedure (SOP) for working with tBuLi, or tert-butyllithium, the pyrophoric compound that Sangji was handling when it ignited. I developed the SOP, in part, from recommendations from the supplier website. I was also trained by more senior graduate students who worked with tBuLi in other groups. Many of my colleagues were required to handle HF, and the safety measures for this compound were well understood by every member of the group, whether they worked with HF or not. But other potentially dangerous compounds that some of us used were not as well recognized. Did my boss know I was working with tBuLi? He knew I was doing ortho-lithiations, but I was one graduate student out of ten working in an interdisciplinary research group in which students were working on everything from small molecule organic synthesis (my project) to inorganic group 14 nanoparticle synthesis. Is it reasonable to ask one person to immediately recall the dangers of every compound required for each of these multi-step syntheses? Was it his responsibility to ensure that each of us was operating in a safe manner? After all, we’re all adults and these are our own research projects. Is it really necessary to write regulations, put together the documents, regulate training, and keep record of everything? When I first started in the group, such measures did not get a warm reception. Following the incident at UCLA, it became apparent that they are necessary and that, yes, they are the principal investigator’s (PI’s) responsibility—the PI is the manager. From then on, I worked as the group’s safety officer, compiling our SOPs and starting the process of ensuring we had documentation for “near-misses” and training....

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Los Angeles district attorney comments on Harran settlement in #SheriSangji case
Jun25

Los Angeles district attorney comments on Harran settlement in #SheriSangji case

Michael Torrice and I have another story up today on the terms of the settlement agreement between University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The new story includes comments from head deputy district attorney Craig Hum regarding the specific terms of the settlement. What didn’t make it into the story: I also asked UCLA whether the university would release Harran from some of his normal teaching responsibilities to help him manage his community service requirements. UCLA spokesman Steve Ritea responded that that hasn’t been determined...

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Myths of the #SheriSangji case
Jun24

Myths of the #SheriSangji case

From Twitter yesterday on Sunday, after I shared the link (yet again) to my 2009 story about the circumstances surrounding the fire in a University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry lab that led to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji: @jkemsley Thx 4 link; may be a bit of misinformation flying around right now abt #sherisangji @krismarsh @DaveFernig @ChemBark — Dr. Allison Stelling (@DrStelling) June 22, 2014 No kidding. Let’s do a little myth-busting, shall we? In the tweets below, “Harran” is chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran, who was in charge of the lab and subsequently faced criminal charges for violations of the California labor code. He and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office reached a settlement agreement on Friday regarding those charges. The first tweet is responding to a question regarding whether Harran was in the lab, supervising Sangji: @DrStelling @DaveFernig @ChemBark Not at midnight on the weekend. She should not have been there by herself, it was a bad decision on her — Kris Marsh (@krismarsh) June 22, 2014 The incident did not happen at midnight on a weekend. It happened just before 3 pm on Monday, Dec. 29, 2008. To debunk another thing that some news media have made much of: Yes, that was during the winter holidays when UCLA administrative offices were closed. But UCLA expected–and I’m sure still expects–that research labs would generally be open 365 days per year, Environment Health & Safety director James Gibson told me in 2009. Sangji was also not alone in the lab when the fire started. There was a postdoctoral researcher in the room with her–although he was not supervising her–and another postdoc in an adjacent room who heard Sangji screaming. @DrStelling @DaveFernig @ChemBark You're assuming he knew she wanted to do the rxn. Can't stop what you don't know about. — Kris Marsh (@krismarsh) June 22, 2014 Harran told a California Department of Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator that he’d talked with Sangji on the morning of the fire about her plans for the day. It’s unclear how detailed that discussion was. @DrStelling @DaveFernig @ChemBark I'm admitting that grad students are in depending and don't need hover-bosses. Trust is there for a reason — Kris Marsh (@krismarsh) June 22, 2014 @DrStelling She was a masters student. I don't think she was as trained as he/we thought she was. She wasn't even wearing a lab coat. — Kris Marsh (@krismarsh) June 22, 2014 Sangji was neither a masters nor a PhD student. She was a staff research scientist. She was also 23 years old. She received her bachelor’s degree seven months before the fire and started...

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Reactions to the Patrick Harran settlement in the #SheriSangji case
Jun23

Reactions to the Patrick Harran settlement in the #SheriSangji case

[View the story “Reactions to Patrick Harran Settlement Agreement in #SheriSangji case” on...

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Patrick Harran and district attorney reach deal in #SheriSangji case
Jun20

Patrick Harran and district attorney reach deal in #SheriSangji case

From C&EN’s story: A Los Angeles County judge approved today an agreement between the district attorney’s office and University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran to defer prosecution of Harran on four felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges in the case stem from a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab that led to the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. Go read it for more details. UCLA posted a version of the settlement agreement here, but some of the term of the agreement changed in court. We’ll post an updated version once we receive it from the district attorney’s office. Update: Here is the copy received from the DA’s office, and I’ve noted the changes made in court on Friday. The settlement has been a long time in coming. Dec. 29, 2008: Sangji was burned in the fire Jan. 16, 2009: Sangji died May 5, 2009: Cal/OSHA fined UCLA $31,875 for violations relating to the fire Aug. 3, 2009: C&EN story on details of the incident Dec. 29, 2011: Charges filed against UC and Harran July 27, 2012: UC and DA reached settlement (more details of the settlement and implementation) Sept. 5, 2012: Harran arraigned November and December, 2012: Testimony heard in Harran’s preliminary hearing April 26, 2013: Harran ordered to trial Aug. 26, 2013: A judge denied defense motions to dismiss the case Oct. 24, 2013: Harran’s attorneys asked the California Court of Appeal to dismiss the case (the DA opposed it) June 20, 2014: Harran and DA reached settlement Other coverage, a list that I’ll try to keep updated over the next few days. Feel free to let me know if I’m missing something: Press releases – UCLA, District Attorney, Harran’s lawyers News organizations – Los Angeles Times short and long, Toronto Star, Nature, Reuters, Associated Press, Westside Today, Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs – Chemjobber (+ several more since that first one), Science Careers, ChemBark, Pump Handle, 27 and a PhD, Pasco Phronesis, Doing Good...

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