Monday, June 02, 2014

UCLA: when a professor violates safety laws and a girl dies, it's an accident, not a criminal act--but the juvenile record of the OSHA inspector is an important issue, say UCLA lawyers

UCLA Chemistry Professor Patrick Harran

UPDATE June 2, 2014: UCLA has managed to halt the trial of People v. [UCLA chemistry professor] Patrick Harran regarding the death of one of Prof. Harran's lab workers.

Thank you to the website Central Science for caring about this case.

UCLA has managed to halt the criminal proceeding in its tracks. Nice work, UCLA. It's lovely to see our tax dollars at work protecting arrogant, negligent professors when a bright and promising young woman dies at UCLA. If UCLA hired someone to advise professors and administrators on ethics and responsibility, it could save a lot of money on lawyers.

Prof. Harran is currently listed on the UCLA chemistry faculty page.

People v Patrick Harran continues
By Jyllian Kemsley
Central Science
January 10th, 2014

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran had another court status check today. The result is another status check scheduled for March 19. The continued delay in scheduling a trial is due at least in part to the fact that Harran’s attorneys are trying to get the case dismissed through the California Court of Appeal. Harran faces trial on four counts of felony violations of the state labor code relating to the 2009 death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a fire in Harran’s lab.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office filed the charges against Harran and the UC governing body on Dec. 27, 2011. UC settled with the district attorney on July 27, 2012, in exchange for implementing a prescribed safety program and a law scholarship in Sangji’s name. Judge Lisa B. Lench heard testimony in Harran’s preliminary hearing in November and December, 2012, then ruled on April 26, 2013, that there was enough evidence for a trial. On Aug. 26, 2013, Judge George G. Lomeli ruled against additional defense motions to dismiss the case.

On Oct. 24, 2013, Harran’s attorneys filed a “petition for writ of mandate, prohibition, or other appropriate relief” with the California Court of Appeal. The petition covers similar territory as the demurrer motion from last August: The defense argues that UC was the employer and Harran merely a supervisor. California Labor Code section 6425(a) makes it a crime for “Any employer and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of any employment, place of employment, or of any other employee” to willfully violate an occupational safety or health standard in such a way that causes death or permanent or prolonged impairment of the body of an employee. Nevertheless, Harran’s attorneys write, the specific occupational safety and health regulations Harran is charged with violating reference either employer or no one at all (Title 8, sections 5191(f)(4), 3203(a)(6), 3383(a), and 3383(b)). Other regulations do call out supervisors. From the petition:

In the regulatory scheme, Cal/OSHA thus specifically identifies supervisors as the party legally responsible for certain acts when it deems necessary. In other circumstances, it simply prescribes duties of employers, and leaves to the employer how to divide responsibility for internal implementation of the safety standards. There is no principled justification to disregard the expressed policy preferences of the administrative body charged with promoting workplace safety in this state.

So far, the Court of Appeal has not done anything with the petition. Until it does, the case cannot proceed.


Jan 23rd 2014
by Auntie markovnikov
What a joke. Motions to dismiss based on semantics of OSHA standards…self-obsessed narcissists running the science world into the ground because they can’t be bothered to establish viable safety protocols. For me, it comes down to this- no way should a first year/undergrad/intern of her experience level be handling such high level pyrophorics. Regardless of all else- that’s his lab, his chemical and his student and he was responsible and failed miserably. Time to see if the justice system can fix what has been broken.

Feb 1st 2014
by Sigmund Derman
I ran an academic biochemistry/molecular biology laboratory lab for quite a few years. The safety culture at that time was not particularly strong in most academic centers. It always seemed to me that many labs were courting disaster. There were some injuries at my institution but none in my lab. But I never had such dangerous reactions going on as they used in Harran’s lab. One exception was using cyanogen bromide which certainly can kill someone. I tended to fear the worst and thus I obsessively checked the safety precautions. My own Ph.D. adviser had been the same way—virtually obsessional about details, including safety. But I knew other grad students whose advisers let them do anything such as eat lunch with one hand and pipette radioactive or toxic chemicals with the other. I almost always went through the whole procedure with a trainee or lab assistant before I would let them do it alone. Or, I had another experienced person do the supervision.


I've tried to find out the final result of the criminal prosecution of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, but there's not even a whisper on the Internet of the final outcome of the case.

But that secret outcome is pretty easy to guess. How much chance is there that Mr. Harran, with all the political power of the University of California behind him, spent a single day in jail? Very little, I imagine. He probably got a plea deal that required community service--most likely, at UCLA. Perhaps in the $3.2 million chemistry lab that the taxpayers provided.

"UCLA chemistry professor to plead not guilty to felony charges associated with 2008 lab fire death"
by Nichole Cgiang
January 9th, 2012
Daily Bruin

UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran will plead not guilty to a felony complaint filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office in late December in relation to a fatal 2008 laboratory fire that resulted in the death of a UCLA staff research assistant.

The university also plans to fight the charges in court, said Kevin Reed, vice chancellor for legal affairs...

Mr. Harran felt very entitled to that $3.2 million lab, and he wouldn't even TALK to the safety inspector until he was provided with quarters that met his expectations. Unfortunately, Sheri Sangii died in Mr. Harran's temporary lab, without benefit of proper safety precautions.

When you're as big and important as UCLA, you can't waste time worrying about the little people who make your success possible. You just worry about the big guys like Harran. And of course, you don't expect him to worry about the little guys either.

But what about state law? Is UCLA worried about that? Apparently not much. UCLA relies on its lawyers to take care of that.

They'll even dig up dirt on the inspector. UCLA's lawyers argued that Harran shouldn't have to answer to a report by Cal-OSHA because the inspector had committed a crime when he was sixteen years old. Dr. Harran, on the other hand, was forty years old at the time his lab worker died.

Sheri Sangii and family at her graduation

"UCLA pursued Harran aggressively, offering him a budget of $3.2 million to set up a state-of-the-art organic chemistry lab on the fifth floor of the Molecular Sciences Building. He and his team were given temporary space on the fourth floor while renovations were made upstairs.

"On October 30, 2008, UCLA chemical safety officer Michael Wheatley conducted an annual inspection of the fourth-floor labs. Wheatley found a number of deficiencies, one particularly relevant to events that would soon unfold: "Eye protection, nitrile [synthetic rubber] gloves and lab coats were not worn by laboratory personnel."

"In an email on November 5, Wheatley asked Harran when they could meet to discuss the findings.

"'Is it possible to wait until we get settled on the 5th floor?' Harran replied a week later. 'That would make for a better meeting—our labs on 4 are overcrowded and disorganized. I wasn't planning to be in temporary space for this long.' Wheatley agreed to the delay.

On December 29, a Monday, Sheri Sangji reported for work on the fourth floor.

Harran wanted her to replicate a chemical reaction she'd performed on October 17, but on a scale three times larger...

Sangji is not the only UCLA lab worker who suffered serious burns in recent years. In November 2007, a graduate chemistry student named Matthew Graf caught fire after spilling a bottle of alcohol near an open flame. He also wasn’t wearing a lab coat and sustained second-degree burns to his hands and torso. He spent a week in a burn center, and underwent surgery to repair his hands. Cal/OSHA didn’t learn about the accident until nearly two years after the fact and cited UCLA for failing to report it; the university is contesting the citation.

Did Lax Laboratory Safety Practices Kill This UCLA Chemist?
In her first year out of college, Sheri Sangji was fatally burned at work. Will her death teach academics to protect their lab staff?
Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity
Jul. 28, 2012


Sangji was taken to the hospital. Shortly after 4 p.m. Pacific time, Naveen Sangji’s cellphone rang in Boston. Then a medical student at Harvard, she assumed her sister was calling to tell her about another law school acceptance letter. They had been coming regularly.

It was a hospital social worker, using Sheri’s phone. Naveen caught a flight to Los Angeles early the next morning and went straight to the burn center to which her sister had been transffered. “Her arms were suspended from the ceiling to keep them in a certain position, all wrapped with bandages,” Naveen says. “The only part of her that I could see was her face.” Her sister would die less than three weeks later.

"Willful violation"

In the months to follow, Naveen pressed UCLA officials for details on the accident. She found the responses wanting. The university, she felt, was trying to make it appear that Sheri was an experienced chemist, and that the fire was her fault.

A state investigator found "a systemic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA."

Cal/OSHA began one investigation shortly after the accident but before Sheri's death; it resulted in four citations and a $31,875 fine against UCLA in May 2009. 

On June 17, 2009, a month after the citations, Chancellor Block replyed to an email from Naveen. He recalled "the elegant and successful way" Sheri had performed the tert-Butyllithium experiment the previous October.
 Block wrote that the "campus believes…that many corrective measures ordered by our inspectors were taken before the tragic accident, though they were not properly documented." Cal/OSHA, he noted, "found no willful violations of regulations or laws by UCLA personnel. Neither [chemistry department chair Al] Courey nor Dr. Harran were in the lab the day of the tragedy and did not have the opportunity to remind Sheri to put on her lab coat."

In his interview with the deputy fire marshal, however, Harran—the lab’s principal investigator, or PI—admitted that his safety policies were less than rigid. Harran said he "never explicitly" told his senior employees, such as postdoctoral fellows, to make sure subordinates were wearing protective equipment.

Sangji is not the only UCLA lab worker who suffered serious burns in recent years. In November 2007, a graduate chemistry student named Matthew Graf caught fire after spilling a bottle of alcohol near an open flame. He also wasn’t wearing a lab coat and sustained second-degree burns to his hands and torso. He spent a week in a burn center, and underwent surgery to repair his hands. Cal/OSHA didn’t learn about the accident until nearly two years after the fact and cited UCLA for failing to report it; the university is contesting the citation.

And on December 22, 2008, one week before Sangji was burned, another graduate chemistry student, Jonah Chung, sustained burns and cuts when the equipment he was working on "detonated, causing glass, hot oil, and chemicals to strike his face and torso," investigator Baudendistel wrote. Chung, who sustained burns and cuts "was not wearing a lab coat, gloves, nor appropriate eye protection…at the time of the incident."

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran in court CPIUCLA Professor Patrick Harran in court CPIIn Naveen Sangji’s view, the fine in her sister's case was sorely insufficient. So she was relieved and gratified when Baudendistel issued his 95-page report in December 2009, concluding that "the laboratory safety policies and practices utilized by UCLA prior to Victim Sangji’s death, were so defective as to render the University’s required Chemical Hygiene Plan and Injury and Illness Prevention Program essentially non-existent." There had been "a systemic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA," he wrote.

"Dr. Harran," Baudendistel concluded in the report, "permitted Victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death."

Baudendistel referred the Harran case to criminal prosecutors, as is Cal/OSHA’s practice when it believes it has evidence of gross employer misconduct. 
While about a third of such referrals result in charges, Harran wasn’t a foreman on a trenching job or the owner of a roofing company. He was an award-winning chemistry professor with the backing of a powerful university.
 He could be expected to fight back—vigorously.

Baudendistel recommended that Harran and UCLA be charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony labor code violations. But when the Los Angeles District Attorney's office did file its felony complaint, this past December, the manslaughter charge was absent, leaving only willful violation of the state labor code.

Hard questions

Chemists and safety consultants were stunned.
 Across academia and private industry, the Sangji case had already set off debate; bloggers and journal editors had written about it. The filing of the complaint took the discussion to another level.
 Uncomfortable questions followed: Were some principal investigators so obsessed with publishing papers, securing grants, and winning prizes that they’d lost sight of their responsibility to keep employees and students from being hurt?

"Each lab is like an island where the PI is king," says Paul Bracher, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at Caltech who writes a blog called ChemBark. 
"He provides for the lab, brings in grants, decides how the money is spent. There are a lot of demands on their time, and the safety stuff a lot of times gets lost in the shuffle.

"I’ve never heard of anyone getting fired for being unsafe," adds Bracher, whose trachea was pierced by flying glass in an undergraduate lab accident 12 years ago.

The US Chemical Safety Board has identified academic "fiefdoms" as being partly to blame for accidents like the one that killed Sangji. Its fall 2011 report concluded that at "academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom." The board recommended that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration revise its lab standard, which focuses on dangers from exposure to hazardous chemicals, to make clear that physical hazards also must be controlled. 

UCLA, for its part, has created a Center for Laboratory Safety which, Chancellor Block said in his January statement, will "identify and institute best practices in safety, going beyond the minimum requirements of outside agencies so that we can hold our laboratories to even higher standards. We also dramatically increased the number of lab inspections, strengthened our policy on the required use of personal protective equipment and developed a hazard-assessment tool that labs must update annually or whenever conditions change."

The real-world impacts of these changes remain to be seen. "I think the university is trying," says Rita Kern, a staff research associate in the UCLA Department of Medicine who sits on the health and safety committee of University Professional and Technical Employees, Communications Workers of America Local 9119 (UPTE), the union to which Sheri Sangji belonged. "Some things have changed, but it’s like turning a big boat in the middle of the ocean. It doesn’t turn very fast."

Indeed, after two inspections in the 14 months following Sangji’s death, Cal/OSHA cited UCLA for 16 lab safety violations. Five were classified as "serious" and one as "repeat serious." The university paid a $36,690 fine.

Ryan Marcheschi, a postdoctoral fellow in the UCLA chemical and biomolecular engineering department who works with flammable and explosive compounds, says the university has "tightened up" on safety since the Sangji accident, though much of this has come in the form of increased paperwork.
 When he learned that the criminal complaint had been filed against Harran, "I thought it was extreme," Marcheschi says. "But then I thought, maybe that’s what’s needed to make policies change."

UPTE's health and safety director, Joan Lichterman, gives the district attorney's settlement agreement with the UC regents a mixed rating. Lichterman likes the fact that PIs at UCLA no longer will be able to operate labs or supervise anyone without first completing safety training. But she doesn't understand why the agreement ends after four years.

"Why only four years and not in perpetuity?" she asks.

"Cal/OSHA officials said the UCLA fine was the largest among seven recent cases involving accidents at academic research labs or those in the chemical and biotechnology industries.

"Fines in the six previous cases, which included serious injuries but not fatalities, ranged from $1,200 to $19,135.

"'The important point to make here is that these penalties are not designed to compensate for injury or loss of life,' said Dean Fryer, a Cal/OSHA spokesman, explaining that the fines merely address the civil violations of workplace regulations."

State fines UCLA in fatal lab fire
Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji lacked proper training, Cal/OSHA found.
Kim Christensen
Los Angeles Times
May 5, 2009

State regulators on Monday fined UCLA more than $31,000 for three "serious" violations of workplace safety laws in the fatal burning of a staff research assistant in a Dec. 29 chemistry lab fire.

The findings by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health concluded that Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji, 23, had not been properly trained and was not wearing protective clothing when an experiment exploded, spreading second- and third-degree burns over 43% of her body. She died 18 days later.

Cal/OSHA also cited UCLA for not addressing deficiencies noted in an internal safety inspection two months before the fatal fire in professor Patrick Harran's organic chemistry laboratory, including a finding that workers were not wearing lab coats.

The 10-page report, which contained scant detail of the Cal/OSHA investigation, left many questions unanswered about the lab's protocols, equipment and supervision, said Sangji's sister, Naveen, a Harvard medical student.

"This report sheds very little light on the incident. Sheri went to work that day and never got the chance to come home," she said. "She suffered agonizing injuries, and these . . . pages do not explain what happened or how it happened."

Cal/OSHA officials said the UCLA fine was the largest among seven recent cases involving accidents at academic research labs or those in the chemical and biotechnology industries.

Fines in the six previous cases, which included serious injuries but not fatalities, ranged from $1,200 to $19,135.


"The important point to make here is that these penalties are not designed to compensate for injury or loss of life," said Dean Fryer, a Cal/OSHA spokesman, explaining that the fines merely address the civil violations of workplace regulations.

As in any accident resulting in death, Fryer said, Cal/OSHA will prepare an additional report to present to the Los Angeles County district attorney for consideration of criminal prosecution. Cal/OSHA as a matter of routine does not contact the district attorney before civil penalties are assessed.

UCLA officials, who ordered a comprehensive review of lab safety after Sangji died, said they would not appeal the fines.

New measures in place or in the works include increased inspections, a shortened time span for correcting serious violations and the purchase of flame-resistant lab coats.

"Although substantial progress has already been made, we will continue to thoroughly monitor and assess our lab training and safety protocols as an integral component of our daily operations," Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement. "The Cal/OSHA report will provide critical assistance with these ongoing efforts."

Sangji was transferring about two ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, splashing her with a chemical compound that ignites instantly when exposed to air.

The resulting flash fire set ablaze her rubber gloves and synthetic sweater.

The $31,875 fine issued Monday included $18,000 for the fact that she wasn't wearing a lab coat, which might have kept her highly flammable sweater from catching fire.

Serious violations carry a maximum fine of $25,000 and a base penalty of $18,000, which can be increased or reduced based on the circumstances.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Sangji graduated in 2008 from Pomona College in Claremont with plans to become a lawyer. While applying to law schools, she took a $46,000-a-year job in October in a lab run by Harran, a researcher with a rising reputation in organic chemistry.

A former member of the faculty at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, he joined the UCLA faculty in July as the first Donald J. Cram Chair in Organic Chemistry, according to his biography on UCLA's website.

A day after the fire, Harran told a UCLA investigator that a syringe "was the appropriate method" for transferring t-butyl lithium, and that Sangji had been trained how to do it. But Harran did not know when that training occurred and had no record of it, as required by Cal/OSHA and UCLA lab safety standards.

Two months before the fire, an annual safety inspection conducted Oct. 30 uncovered more than two dozen deficiencies in Harran's four labs, including the one where Sangji worked.

Among other things, inspectors found excessive amounts of flammable liquids, and workers who lacked the required lab coats and other required safety gear, such as rubber gloves and eye protection.

Some of the fixes were made immediately, Harran later told colleagues in e-mails, but others were delayed because the lab was in the process of moving to another floor and was to have been reinspected afterward.

A campus safety official agreed to the delayed reinspection, according to UCLA records reviewed by The Times.

In a statement Monday, Harran said that he and his students "deeply mourn the death of our friend Sheri Sangji," describing her as exceptionally gifted.

He also said that although it is important to develop a culture of lab safety, the inspection and training records that have garnered scrutiny since Sangji's death had little relation to the accident.

"Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab," he said.

"However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials."

UC Regents strike plea deal in chemistry lab death at UCLA
Kim Christensen
LA Times
July 27, 2012

UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran with attorney Thomas O'Brien in Los Angeles Superior Court Friday.

Felony charges against the University of California Regents stemming from the 2009 death of UCLA research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji were dropped Friday in return for a pledge of comprehensive safety measures and the endowment of a $500,000 scholarship in her name.

“The Regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory operated on December 29, 2008,” the agreement read in part, referring to the date that Sangji, 23, suffered fatal burns.

She was transferring about 1.8 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin. She died 18 days later.

From the outset, UCLA and chemistry professor Patrick Harran, who is still charged in the case, have cast her death as a tragic accident and said she was a seasoned chemist who was trained in the experiment and chose not to wear a protective lab coat.

In late December, however, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Harran and the UC Regents with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.

Friday’s agreement, announced at a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, does not affect Harran’s charges. University of California officials said Friday they stood by him and would continue to pay his legal expenses.

Harran was to be arraigned Friday, but that was postponed until Sept. 5 to allow the judge to weigh defense motions, including one this week that alleges the state’s chief investigator on the case... committed murder as a teenager.

Baudendistel, a senior special investigator for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, has denied that he is the person of the same name who pleaded no contest to first degree murder when he was 16.

But Harran’s lawyers said in court papers this week that the district attorney’s office had matched [the inspector’s fingerprints to the killer’s and that the two share the same birth date. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the allegation or the defense’s motion to quash Harran’s arrest because of it.

The motion contends that the Cal-OSHA investigator is the same [person] who, in January 1985 with two accomplices, lured Michael Myer from a bar in the Northern California town of El Dorado to a remote area to rob him of $3,000 worth of methamphetamine. As he rolled up on his motorcycle, Myer, 26, was killed by a shotgun blast. Another teenager admitted to being the shooter, but said Baudendistel had supplied the weapon.

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