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:

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:

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.

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.

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 working in Harran’s lab two months before the fire. Her undergraduate research was on peptide chemistry. Between college and Harran’s lab, she worked for Norac Pharma, where she did not handle pyrophoric materials such as t-butyllithium, the chemical involved in the fire. It’s unclear how much training she received in Harran’s lab to handle t-butyllithium, but she was likely shown poor technique. She’d used the chemical once at a smaller scale before the day of the fire.

As for a lab coat, an inspection two months before the fire flagged researchers not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) in Harran’s lab. Although Harran told a UCLA fire marshal that he encouraged his lab members to wear lab coats, there’s no indication that he required it. Graduate student Andrew Roberts told investigators that he didn’t wear a lab coat and that not wearing one was common practice in the lab. Postdoc Paul Hurley also said that he didn’t regularly wear a lab coat.

More broadly, UCLA health and safety specialist Michael Wheatley told investigators that wearing lab coats generally was discretionary. UCLA Chemical Safety Officer William Peck said something similar:

Q: Based upon your experience there, was there any particular reason why people weren’t wearing their PPE?
Peck: It was just cultural I think. Um, it was hard to convince the professors that they needed to. Um, and if the professors didn’t enforce it, nobody did. Because we didn’t-EH&S didn’t enforce things like that.

So, yes, Sangji should have worn a lab coat, preferably a flame-resistant one. But clearly the culture around her said that wearing protective equipment was optional.

You’ll note that all those tweets are from @krismarsh, who appears to be a graduate student in professor Richard B. Kaner‘s group at UCLA. He also tweeted that he’s the group’s safety officer.

Why did C&EN put in the resources to follow this case so closely for so long? Because we believed that no one could properly learn from the incident unless they knew the details of what happened. I find it more than a little disturbing that people at UCLA–and apparently even lab safety officers at UCLA–do not know the correct details and try to write off the incident as someone who should have known better making poor choices behind her adviser’s back, alone at midnight on a holiday weekend. That’s not what happened.

And while I’m at it, to those who think Harran was scapegoated for managing his lab the same as most other synthesis labs in the country: The appropriate response here is not to say, “Harran did the same as everyone else, what’s the big deal?” The appropriate response is to say, “Harran did the same as everyone else, and a young researcher DIED. What can we do to ensure that never, ever happens again?”

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. The outcome is disturbing to say the least. Negligence on the PIs part and his general
    Disregard for lab safety led to this incident. Arrogance, money and the university’s greed allows him to walk away.

    He shouldn’t be allowed to handle an academic lab- plain and simple.
    Hopefully the civil suit will be swift and unwavering.

  2. It’s believed that the statute of limitations has past for this case.

  3. My colleague, Kris Marsh was not a student at UCLA at the time of the accident, so I think it might be a bit much to say that he speaks for us all.

    I, however, was a student a few floors down from the Harran lab. I recall the general reaction, at least among my grad student cohort, as being pretty much exactly what you very succinctly say in your last paragraph.

    I also felt at the time that there were sizable demographics that seemed comfortable implying that the whole thing was a terrible tragedy… for UCLA/Harran.

    Very few of us wore lab coats at the time. They were generally ill-fit, and the cuffs would knock things over. Not that UCLA provided flame-proof lab coats anyway. I’ll look around to see if I have an old one. I’m nearly certain they were a synthetic blend. Personally, I’d rather not have been wearing one of those if I were on fire, though a sweater may have been marginally worse.

  4. Thank you, Jyllian and C&EN, for your due diligence in setting these factual distortions straight.

  5. I went to the lab today and dug out one of our old lab coats: 80% polyester, 20% cotton.

    Personally, though. I’ve always thought the whole sweater thing to be a bit silly. The uncertainty about the safety shower seems, in my opinion, to have been the biggest factor in her survivability after catching fire.

    I’ve yet to see a safety course or video that discusses the fact that the fires one encounters in a chemistry laboratory are likely to be unusual and unexpected colors. The human brain seems unlikely to appreciate the subtleties of “fire is fire” when it’s never seen a brilliantly red fire before.

  6. I always prefer to have layers of protection. I have set myself on fire more than once. If you work with the materials I do it is inevitable. It was earlier in my career and I was in a hurry. Droplets of pyrophoric material came spraying off a needle and landed across my chest and shoulder. The fire burned through my cotton/nylon (88/12) lab coat, my polyester/cotton (80/20) uniform and charred my cotton (100) t-shirt. Not making it to my skin. Had I been wearing just one layer I would have be burned. Had I been wearing an open weave style of clothing, it would have certainly caught fire. The weave is just as important as the material.
    I believe that accidents happen. You just need to take steps that when it does you or anyone around you does not get hurt.