This Week on CENtral Science: #Nobels, #SheriSangji
Oct12

This Week on CENtral Science: #Nobels, #SheriSangji

CENtral Science was a cornucopia of Nobel commentary this week: Just Another Electron Pusher: Awarding nontraditional chemistry Newscripts: A Nobel In Chemistry, Through The Eyes Of “Families” Terra Sigillata: HHMI and Duke Celebrate the Lefkowitz Chemistry Nobel, Lefkowitz and Kobilka win 2012 Chemistry Nobel for GPCRs, Gurdon and Yamanaka share Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012, and Lefkowitz Nobel: “There’s a lot of love here.” (video goodness!) Plus, an update and some perspective on the Sheri Sangji case: The Safety Zone: Harran hearing in #SheriSangji case postponed and Chemjobber and Janet Stemwedel discuss #SheriSangji case and academic lab safety culture And the usuals: Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots The Safety Zone: Friday chemical safety...

Read More
Now on the Sheri Sangji Case: The L.A. District Attorney's Office
Jan13

Now on the Sheri Sangji Case: The L.A. District Attorney's Office

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) last week sent its findings in the investigation of the death of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry researcher Sheri Sangji to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. The DA's office will now review the case and decide whether to file charges against the university or any of its employees. Sangji, a research assistant in the lab of chemistry professor Patrick Harran, died a year ago after being badly burned in a laboratory fire. Cal/OSHA investigated the incident and subsequently fined UCLA $31,875 for laboratory safety violations related to Sangji's death. As is standard practice in the case of a workplace death, Cal/OSHA's Bureau of Investigations reviewed the case to determine whether there was sufficient evidence of criminal violations of the California Labor Code to warrant referring the case to the DA's office. Now, "the prosecutor must evaluate the evidence to determine if a crime has been committed and, if so, if the evidence is sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt to show that the suspect is guilty of the crime," says LA County DA's office spokesperson Sandi Gibbons. "Reviews can take weeks or months, depending on the amount of evidence and if follow-up investigation is needed." Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza told C&EN that the agency had referred Sangji's case to the DA's office. Gibbons confirmed that the DA's office received the evidence from Cal/OSHA and is reviewing it. UCLA, however, "has been assured by Cal/OSHA’s lead investigator, as recently as today, that the investigation is ongoing and that no decision has been made," says UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton. "UCLA strongly disagrees with any pursuit of criminal charges. The campus believes that Ms. Sangji’s death resulted from a tragic accident involving no willful negligence and was unrelated to the record-keeping, inspections and follow-ups that have been the focus of Cal/OSHA and accounts in the news media." Sangji's sister, Naveen Sangji, has previously said that her family would like the district attorney's office to get involved, because they felt that the Cal/OSHA and university investigations were not thorough enough. "We want to know who was responsible and who failed in their duties to make sure Sheri was safe at work," Naveen said. According to Cal/OSHA policies & procedures, the laws generally considered in cases such as this are Labor Code Sections 6423 and 6425. The sections outline penalties for violations of occupational safety & health standards that include prison time and/or hefty...

Read More
Learning From UCLA
Oct05

Learning From UCLA

The six columns of letters in this week's print edition of C&EN and several more columns in this week's edition of C&EN Online all pertain to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant in a chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, and C&EN's coverage of the accident that led to her death. Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley has written extensively about the accident, culminating in a major investigative article that appeared in the Aug. 3 issue (page 29). To recap, on Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji was scaling up a reaction she had carried out at least once before to produce 4-hydroxy-4-vinyldecane from either 4-undecanone or 4-decanone. The first step of the reaction was to generate vinyllithium by reacting vinylbromide with tert-butyllithium, a pyrophoric chemical. The experiment went terribly wrong when the tert-butyllithium spilled and ignited a spilled flask of hexane. Sangji suffered extensive burns on her upper body. She died on Jan. 16. The letters C&EN has received on the accident focus on several themes. A common one is that the laboratory shower should have been used to extinguish the fire that had engulfed Sangji. James W. Lewis writes that Kemsley's article "tells me that many chemists need to better understand the importance of laboratory safety showers. Immediate use of a safety shower is the best option in a clothes-on-fire situation." Stephen T. Ross writes: "The safety shower that could have lessened her injuries was used neither by Sangji nor by either of the two fellow-chemists who responded to her cries. Why? Possibly it was because chemists are never trained to use the shower because it produces a huge volume of water of uncertain quality without a drain and is, thus, too messy to demonstrate." Ross makes another point, observing that the behavior of "instantly pyrophoric compounds can't be appreciated until it is seen." Potential users should be shown what happens when a small volume is exposed to air and ignites, he writes. "It is important to prepare the mind." Other letter writers wondered why Sangji was scaling up the reaction at all. James T. Palmer writes: "Nowhere, however, did I see anyone ask why an extremely dangerous reagent was used to generate an organometallic compound ... that can be purchased. I have supervised synthetic chemists for more than 20 years. ... Whatever their level, there is one common rule: Buy your bonds rather than make them whenever possible." Peter Reinhardt points to stringent regulations governing the use of radionuclides in academic labs, with the requirement that before an experiment can be carried out, a project-specific plan must be submitted to the institutional Radiation...

Read More
Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again
Aug27

Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again

(Post updated at end.) The University of California, Los Angeles, is still under the microscope of state regulators. California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) officials paid the school's chemistry & biochemistry department a surprise visit on Tuesday, Aug. 26. Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza says that the inspection marked the opening of a new investigation into laboratory health & safety at the university, although she refused to comment on the details of the investigation while it is ongoing, including what prompted it. California law gives Cal/OSHA six months to complete investigations, although the agency usually takes 3-4 months, Monterroza says. Rita Kern, a staff research associate in UCLA's medical school, is a member of the University Professional and Technical Employees union's health & safety committee and accompanied the three Cal/OSHA inspectors. The inspectors did not reveal what prompted their visit, she says. The group had intended to inspect multiple labs in the chemistry & biochemistry department, Kern says, but because of time constraints looked only at the labs of Patrick Harran, a UCLA chemistry professor and the supervisor of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a staff research associate who died earlier this year from burns sustained in a fire in Harran's lab. Harran was not present for the inspection, Kern says. The inspectors plan to return to look at the labs of other faculty members, Kern says. The inspectors scrutinized general housekeeping in the labs, whether people were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, and whether workers were informed about the hazards of the chemicals in the labs, Kern says. She says that the inspection was more educational than adversarial, with the Cal/OSHA personnel making it clear that they were there to look out for the well-being of the lab workers. At the exit conference, the inspectors highlighted the need to ensure proper labeling of chemicals and put away items that are not in use, as well as that lab workers should be better informed about what they're working with and the hazards involved, Kern says. One of the inspectors noted that what they had seen that day was not significantly different from what they have generally observed at other universities, Kern says. "UCLA will review Cal/OSHA's finding and, where appropriate and possible, address them immediately, consistent with UCLA's commitment to ensuring the safest possible operation of all campus labs," says UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton. It remains unclear what prompted the inspection. According to Cal/OSHA's User's Guide (pdf), a surprise inspection could be triggered by a formal complaint made by an employee or an employee representative such as an attorney or a union or health & safety professional. "Formal complaints are...

Read More
Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents
Aug07

Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents

C&EN has put out a lot of information this week on the UCLA lab fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, with the magazine story and accompanying investigation reports, as well as the posts here on the blog. I have a few more thoughts before we wrap up. First, it's important to keep in mind that the only reason C&EN was able to get as much information as it did about what happened to Sangji was because the incident occurred at a public university that is subject to public records laws. Most of the reports belonged to UCLA's fire marshals, fire department, police department, and environmental health & safety office. The notes and reports of people in similar positions at a private school would be unattainable if the school chose not to release them. Cal/OSHA collected complementary information, but the agency would not have been involved had Sangji been a student. Undergraduate and graduate students, and sometimes even postdocs, are typically not considered to be university employees, even if they're paid a stipend. Cal/OSHA and similar agencies only have jurisdiction over employees. (On a separate but related note, students also may not be eligible for worker's compensation.) Second, getting the facts right in this case has been a challenge, despite the fact that C&EN reporters and editors work hard to ensure that the information in our stories comes from reliable sources. One example is that C&EN initially reported that Sangji was wearing a synthetic sweater, based on a post to the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list. But that detail didn't seem to be included in the documents C&EN later reviewed. Another example was the fact that the Cal/OSHA summary of the incident said that Sangji had been syringing only 20 mL of tert-butyllithium, when she was really aiming for three 50 mL transfers. Now take a moment to imagine how incident information likely gets distorted when institutions aren't upfront about what happened in an incident and documentation isn't available, and the chemistry community is forced to play a game of telephone. As research labs and universities take a look at their safety programs in light of Sangji's death, I hope that they also consider their responsibility to the research community to disseminate information--C&EN's Safety Letters are one way to do so--so that others can learn from what happened. I realize that a fear of lawsuits is probably what drives some to clamp down, but as some medical doctors have found, perhaps if you step up, take responsibility for what went wrong, and explain what you'll do to ensure that it...

Read More