........
Judge Postpones
Arraignment of
Harran and UCLA for
the Fourth Time

The arraignment of
Professor Patrick Harran
and the University of
California that was
scheduled to be held today
on charges stemming from
the laboratory fire that killed
Sheri Sangji has been
postposed for the fourth
time.  This happened
despite a statement by the
judge at the time of the third
postponement, in March,
that the arraignment would
definitely take place today.

Instead, the lawyers for both
sides were ordered to
appear before the judge on
July 2 to report on the status
of negotiations on a plea
arrangement that has
reportedly been in the works
for months.  Following that,
the judge said today, the
arraignment would definitely
take place on July 13, when
either the terms of a deal will
be announced or the
defendants will enter pleas
to the charges.

By Beryl Benderly  
June 7, 2012
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UCLA and Professor Found At Fault in Deadly Lab
Accident
by RACHEL SMITH
JANUARY 23, 2012

Sheri Sangji (center) Image via: philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com

A three-year criminal investigation by Cal/OSHA into the death of Sheri Sangji has
concluded, and investigators have found the professor in charge of the lab and
UCLA responsible.  Ms. Sangji was burned over half of her body after she was
engulfed in flames while transferring tert-butyllithium, a highly flammable
substance, just three months after she was hired to work in a UCLA organic
chemistry lab ran by Patrick Harran.

On Dec. 29 [2008], Sangji was performing an experiment related to Harran’s work
on a potential anti-obesity drug, UCLA’s Reed said.

She was trying to transfer up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium, which was dissolved in
pentane, another highly flammable chemical, from one sealed container to
another. It was the second time she had performed that procedure in Harran’s lab,
UCLA officials said.

“The barrel of the syringe was either ejected or pulled out of the syringe, causing
liquid to be released,” the UCLA accident report stated.

Sangji’s rubber gloves caught fire, searing her hands. Her sweater, made of a
synthetic material, was so flammable that Langerman, the chemical safety expert,
compared it to “solid gasoline.” It, too, was quickly engulfed.

The panicked young woman ran away from a nearby emergency shower instead of
toward it, records state, costing her precious time.

“She might have been fine” had she quickly made it to the shower, said Russ
Phifer, head of the American Chemical Society’s safety division, who also reviewed
the UC official’s account of the accident.

A postdoctoral researcher, who UCLA officials say was just a few feet away,
rushed to Sangji’s aid and tried to smother the flames with a lab coat. Another ran
in from an adjoining room, helped douse the fire, then called 911 and summoned
Harran, Reed said.

“He said when he got there Sheri was sitting with her arms
outstretched in front of her and someone was throwing
water at her from a sink,” said Naveen, who spoke with
Harran later at the hospital. That account squares with the
UCLA accident report. LA Times, 01 Mar 2009.

Sangji died eighteen days after the accident of a respiratory failure and infection.
Before her death, she was able to tell her sister that she had not received any
safety training.

The 95-page report adds new detail to the circumstances surrounding Sangji’s
death and provides insight into the basis for felony charges filed last month
against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents.
Based on labor code violations, the charges are thought to be the first stemming
from an academic lab accident in the United States.

University officials have blasted the charges as “unwarranted,” “outrageous” and
“appalling” and say they contradict an earlier Cal/OSHA investigation that resulted
in nearly $32,000 in Cal/OSHA fines but no findings of intentional, or “willful,”
violations.

The findings of the subsequent criminal probe, conducted by a different
investigator, were far harsher.

The report states that UCLA, by repeatedly failing to address previous safety
lapses, had “wholly neglected its legal obligations” to provide a safe environment
in campus labs and that Harran was personally responsible.

“Dr. Harran simply disregarded the open and obvious dangers presented in this
case and 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,” the
report by senior special investigator Brian Baudendistel states.

If Harran had trained his research assistant properly and assured that she wore
clothing appropriate for the work, “Sangji’s death would have been prevented,” it
said.

Harran’s attorney, Thomas O’Brien, disputed those conclusions.
LA Times, 21 Jan
2012.

Kevin Reed, UCLA vice chancellor for legal affairs, said he "vehemently"
disagreed with the findings.
Sheri Sangji (center) Image via: philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com
UCLA stops criminal trial of
UCLA professor in its tracks


Plea negotations to continue
in UCLA lab fatality case
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A young lab worker, a professor and a deadly accident
The tragic story of a young lab assistant, whose death exposed lax safety at
UCLA and other universities and has led to an unprecedented criminal trial.
By: Kate Allen Science and Technology reporter
The Star
Mar 30 2014

LOS ANGELES—Until Sheri Sangji’s screams split the calm, Dec. 29, 2008, was a
subdued day in the UCLA Molecular Sciences Building. Campus was mostly
deserted for Christmas break.

Sangji was working on a reaction involving tert-Butyllithium. She was 23 and had
earned her bachelor’s degree that spring. Two older postdoctoral fellows were
engrossed in their own work nearby. Patrick Harran, the chemistry professor who
had hired Sangji as a research associate two months earlier, was in his office one
floor up.

Tert-Butyllithium, or t-BuLi for short, is what’s known as pyrophoric: it ignites
spontaneously in air. Sangji picked up a plastic syringe and began drawing up 54
millilitre quantities.

One of the postdocs heard Sangji scream. He looked up and saw her on fire. He
tried wrapping his lab coat around her, but that caught fire too. The other postdoc
called 911 and ran to find Harran. When Harran arrived, Sangji was sitting on the
floor with her arms outstretched, shaking. Her synthetic sweatshirt had burned
away, and large blisters were beginning to form on her abdomen. The skin was
separating from her hands. She had not been wearing a lab coat.

At the specialized burn centre where she was treated for the next 18 days, Sangji
was at first conscious and in great pain. She worried that she would lose use of
her hands.

Then her organs began to fail, and on Jan. 16, she died. A doctor later testified
she had suffered second- and third-degree burns to nearly half her body. Sangji
was buried in Toronto, a short drive from her parents’ house.

Nobody involved in Sangji’s story claims her death was anything other than tragic.
But lawyers for Harran, the professor, say that tragedy was rooted in Sangji’s own
actions: she was an experienced chemist who had botched a basic experiment
she had completed successfully before. Her death was an accident, not a crime.

Prosecutors for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office disagree.

The systemic failures that led to Sangji’s death began
accumulating well before the day a young, inexperienced
woman was permitted to undertake a dangerous
experiment alone, California workplace safety
investigators concluded in a 2009 report. She was never
properly trained or even issued a lab coat. Harran’s lab had
been cited for safety problems but given an extension on
the cleanup date. And in earlier incidents, two other
students were seriously burned at UCLA labs, but nothing
at the school changed.

The D.A. charged Harran with four felony labour code
violations, and if convicted he could go to prison for four
years. The case, currently on hold while Harran’s lawyers
seek to get it dismissed in appeals court, is the first
criminal prosecution of an American academic for a lab
accident.

The trial has startled the scientific community, prompting debate over whether
Harran was grossly negligent or following standard protocol for academia, where
free-ranging intellectual curiosity trumps bureaucratic strictures.

But nobody disputes that safety culture at universities is widely divergent from
safety culture in private, industrial labs.

“What happened there is unacceptable, but what happened there could have
happened to other professors too,” says Wayne Wood, associate director of
university safety at McGill. In 2010, a graduate chemistry student in Texas lost
three fingers and damaged an eye during a dangerous experiment. In 2011, a
Yale undergraduate working late at night was asphyxiated when her hair caught in
a chemistry lab lathe. There are no good statistics on the differences between
academic and industrial safety, however, and oversight varies by state and
province.

“I think a lot of people are running scared. But the problem is how to run,” says Bill
Tolman, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Minnesota.

“The most difficult thing to do is change a culture.”

From Karachi to L.A.

Sheharbano Sangji — Sheri for short — was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a
comfortable middle-class family whose biggest conflict seems to have been who
would get to read the newest issue of Time magazine first. Sangji and her siblings,
an older sister and a younger brother, would fight to get in the door and
monopolize it for the rest of the afternoon.

Naveen Sangji, the eldest, said her sister was shy as a child. That changed with
adolescence.

“I will tell you, she was not shy anymore,” Naveen said. “She was very confident.
She knew what she wanted out of life.”

The children were encouraged to strive academically. They were all accepted to
Karachi Grammar School, an elite institute whose alumni include Benazir Bhutto,
the former prime minister of Pakistan, and a long roster of international who’s who.

In her final year there, Sangji discovered that the school’s timetable was arranged
so that she couldn’t enroll in history, her favourite subject, along with the full
complement of sciences. She wrote a petition explaining why history and science
were important to study together, gathered signatures from her classmates, and
marched into the headmaster’s office.

“She got it done,” said Zahra Khan, one of Sangji’s closest friends. “Most people
would have just been like, ‘Oh, I can’t take this, I’ll just take something else.’ ”

Sangji was keenly alert to inequality and disinclined to sit back and accept it, her
friends say.

Sangji followed her older sister to Pomona College, a well-regarded liberal arts
school in California; her parents moved to Toronto the same month. She majored
in chemistry and by all accounts she excelled, earning outstanding grades and
working in the lab of a professor.

But inequality was what tugged at her. “She had a big presence on campus,
especially for social issues,” said Prashant Kotwani, who first met Sangji when
Sangji volunteered to mentor incoming international students. Sangji chose social
justice over science, and decided to apply to law school.

While working on her applications, she took a job at Norac Pharma in Azusa, just
east of Los Angeles. But she wanted to be in the city, so when she saw an
opening at UCLA, she applied and was hired. She started work in Harran’s lab on
Oct. 13, 2008.

Harran was still a newcomer to Los Angeles too. In July, he left a tenured position
in Texas to take up a newly minted endowed chair in organic chemistry.

Details of Patrick Harran’s personal life are hard to come by, thanks to the trial.
His colleagues declined to comment or didn’t respond to inquiries.

His professional life followed a clear trajectory. After earning a PhD from Yale,
Harran did a postdoctoral stint at Stanford, and then joined the faculty at the
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 1997.

For the next decade, Harran worked to create molecules that mimic those found in
nature and that might be effective in fighting diseases, particularly cancer and
obesity. One project involved synthesizing diazonamide A, a toxin discovered in
sea squirts. Harran and colleagues demonstrated that one of the compounds kills
cancer cells with few side effects when given to mice.

UCLA recruited him for the new chair. When Harran accepted, the professor
leading the search committee said Harran’s arrival “will immediately raise the
profile of UCLA organic chemistry in the U.S.”

The chair was endowed by the family of a chemistry Nobel laureate. Expectations
for Harran were not middling. When UCLA fire marshals wrapped up their
interview with him three weeks after Sangji’s death, they asked if he had anything
else to discuss.

“I uh, again just to say that this is not how I wanted to start at UCLA,” a transcript
of the interview quotes him as saying.

As a junior staffer with a bachelor’s degree, Sangji’s primary responsibility was
setting up instruments; a third of her time was spent on chemistry.

The day after she began work, Harran watched her complete a reaction with a
reagent called Grubbs’ Catalyst, which is air-sensitive, but not pyrophoric, so not
at risk of spontaneously igniting. Sangji completed the syringe transfer within a
“glove bag,” an enclosed area that prevents any part of the reaction from coming
in contact with air. Harran later told workplace safety investigators that she
executed the transfer without difficulty.

A few days later, Sangji completed her first reaction with t-BuLi. The plan was to
combine t-BuLi with vinyl bromide to create vinyllithium, the first part of a multi-
stage process. She emailed a postdoc for help, but the postdoc said he doesn’t
remember what he told her, if anything. In any case, Sangji managed to complete
the reaction.

The morning of Dec. 29, Sangji told Harran she was going to scale up the
reaction, according to evidence presented at a preliminary hearing for Harran.

During her short time at Norac Pharma, the company president later told
investigators, Sangji was closely supervised because of her limited laboratory
experience. She never performed experimental work without direct guidance from
her superiors. She never worked with t-BuLi or any other pyrophorics.

The prosecution said that all Harran gave Sangji in the way of direction that
morning was to “be careful.” There is no evidence she was ever ordered a
standard cotton lab coat, not to mention a fire-resistant one, which experts
testified would be the minimum protection required at a private laboratory.

Harran’s lawyers said Sangji had been issued five lab coats at Norac Pharma, and
that her experience there, at school, and in her earlier t-BuLi reactions provided
her with the necessary training to undertake the experiment alone. What’s more,
there is no guarantee that what happened next could have been prevented with a
lab coat.

The company that manufactures the t-BuLi that Sangji was using, Sigma-Aldrich,
provides a bulletin for the safe handling of pyrophoric and air-sensitive chemicals.
The bulletin states that up to 50 millilitres may be
transferred with a one- to two-foot needle. Sangji
was transferring 54 millilitres with a two-inch
needle. She would have had to hold the bottle by
hand and tip it toward herself so the short needle
could reach the top of the t-BuLi.

The bulletin indicated the syringe should be glass
and should only be used for a single transfer, or
else the syringe might freeze up or become
plugged. Sangji was using the same syringe, a
plastic one with plastic locks, for all three
transfers she needed to make.

It’s not known whether Sangji ever saw that
bulletin, or whether anyone ever told her it was
available. It’s also not known where she came up
with the flawed transfer method.

Whether her syringe became plugged or not can’t be determined — it was found
melted in her fume hood. The plunger was lying two metres away, where she had
thrown it.

At the hospital, she told firefighters who took her statement that she had pulled
the plunger of the syringe too far. She also said she spilled a flask of pentane, a
flammable chemical that fed the fireball.

Systemic safety failures

Naveen Sangji was getting ready to go out for dinner in Boston, where she was a
medical student at Harvard, when her cellphone rang. Her little sister’s name
appeared on call display. Naveen assumed it was more news about law school.

“The last few times I had heard from her, in very quick succession it was, ‘Hey, I
just got accepted at USC. Hey, I just got accepted at the University of Michigan.’”

Instead, it was a hospital social worker.

As the Sangji family’s de facto spokesperson, Naveen speaks in practised
messages. She never bothers to hide her anger at Harran and UCLA, but she
rarely reveals the depth of her sorrow or that of her family; before all this, she
said, she was a private person.

All she will say about that phone call is that friends came to help her. She waited
until she and an uncle from Toronto had booked seats on the next flights to
California before phoning her parents, who were on a trip to the United Arab
Emirates. She doesn’t want to say how her parents reacted, only that breaking the
news to them was one of the hardest things she has ever done.

Naveen, now a surgical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, knew without
being told how devastating her sister’s injuries were. Yet doctors thought Sheri
Sangji would survive, and so did her family. Trying to stay positive, they didn’t talk
much about what had happened in Harran’s lab.

But the burns deepened, and Sangji spiralled into multiple organ failure. During a
third operation to scrape away dead tissue, her heart stopped. Doctors declared
her brain-dead. Eighteen days after the fire, her family took her off life support.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as
Cal/OSHA, began an investigation. Investigators interviewed Harran, Harran’s
staff, Sangji’s employers at Norac Pharma, her college chemistry mentor and
UCLA’s health and safety unit, and subpoenaed numerous records.

A year after Sangji’s death, Cal/OSHA completed its report, which painted a
damning picture of systemic safety failures at UCLA.

Harran’s endowed chair came with $3.2 million to set up laboratories on the fifth
floor of the molecular science building, the report said. But until those renovations
were complete, his team occupied rooms on the fourth floor, which were a third
the size and lacked storage space.

During a routine, pre-announced inspection of the
labs in October, a UCLA chemical safety officer
noted a long list of problems in the fourth-floor
labs, from improper storage of flammable
materials to numerous staffers working without
lab coats or other protective equipment. Harran
was given 30 days to comply, the standard
timeframe, though there were no penalties for
missing the deadline.

In early November, he asked for an extension since they were soon to be moving
to the spacious fifth floor. He was given it. Harran appears to have received no
safety training from UCLA either, investigators pointed out, or any help setting up
his lab to comply with university policy or state law.

In addition, investigators discovered two other
laboratory accidents that had occurred within 14
months before the one that killed Sangji.
In November
2007, a chemistry graduate who wasn’t wearing a lab coat spilled ethanol on
himself near a Bunsen burner and caught fire; he was hospitalized for a week.
Just seven days before Sangji died, another graduate student, also not wearing a
lab coat, was burned and cut when a reaction pot exploded. Neither incident was
reported to Cal/OSHA.

“It was kind of common knowledge that laboratory people don’t use the proper
(protective equipment) when they are in the lab … it was hard to convince the
professors that they needed to,” UCLA’s manager of laboratory safety told the
Cal/OSHA interviewers.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, acting on Cal/OSHA’s
recommendations, charged Harran and the governing body of the University of
California with four felony labour code violations. (The DA’s office did not,
however, pursue a recommended charge of involuntary manslaughter.)

The university and the DA reached a settlement. In return for admitting
responsibility for the laboratory conditions when Sangji died, for promising to
maintain a comprehensive lab safety program, and for setting up a $500,000
environmental law scholarship at Berkeley in Sangji’s name, prosecutors dropped
the charges.

The case against Harran continued, and last August, a judge ruled there was
sufficient evidence to send him to trial.

Case sets off debate

The news that a chemistry professor was actually going to trial for a lab accident
jolted the academic community to attention.

Writers for the Chemical & Engineering News used freedom of information laws to
access many of the reports that form the basis of this story, and they have
attended all of Harran’s key court dates. Their detailed accounts of the
proceedings are dissected by a secondary ecosystem of bloggers, where raging
debates over the merits of the case take place.

“I’m an industrial chemist, and if I did what he did, I’d be in as much trouble as him,
and my company sure as heck wouldn't have gotten off with a wrist-slap like UCLA
did!” one anonymous commenter on the Chemjobber blog commented. “I agree …
if someone under my supervision were killed on the job, I would at a minimum be
unemployed,” another added.

Others bristled that Harran was being “railroaded.”

“Did she have the proper training for t-BuLi. Nope. Do 90 per cent of grad
students get any better training from their advisor? Nope. So I guess the plan is to
martyr Professor Harran in the name of saving accidents in the future?”

The people paying closest attention have been those directly responsible for
laboratory safety on campus: university safety professionals like McGill’s Wayne
Wood.

“It has sent shockwaves through the university campuses really right across the
continent,” he said. “For us, we’re acutely aware of it, because Sangji is one of
ours” — Sangji’s younger brother studies biophysics at McGill.

Before Sangji’s death, Wood said, safety
managers like him were viewed as an unwelcome
layer of bureaucracy.

Academics “are so focused on their research.
They’re really intense individuals who really
devote all their time and attention to trying to
unravel the mysteries of science,” he said. “They
don’t necessarily have the personality profile of
managers. Many are extremely intellectual, but
maybe not the personality type who like to
supervise people.”

Since Sangji’s death, Wood said he has been
given more leeway to enforce sanctions when
labs don’t pass muster. His administration, once
hesitant, now fully supports him, he says.

Another problem is the decentralized structure of universities. Industrial labs have
one front door for new hires, and commands can be issued by executives.
Professors are dispersed across departments and see huge turnover in students
and staff — a “constant influx of rookies,” says University of Minnesota’s Tolman.

Tolman, the chair of the chemistry department, was “spurred into action” by a
video about Sangji’s death. With help from Dow, the multinational chemical
company, the chemistry and chemical engineering department created a new
system that saw students running a parallel safety board to the university’s
professional one.

“It’s been an amazing story,” said Tolman. “They’ve been changing the culture.”
The system helps enforce safety by empowering students rather than dictating it
from on high.

When the Star visited UCLA in October, the university declined requests for a tour
of safety improvements on campus, saying no one was available.

A spokesperson also said the director of Environmental Health and Safety was too
busy to meet for an interview, and instead sent an email with statistics about UCLA’
s beefed-up enforcement — achieving 95-per-cent compliance with the personal
protective equipment policy, for example, through a steep increase in
unannounced safety inspections — and a list of links to press releases about
safety improvements.

A voicemail left for chemistry department faculty and staff instructed them not to
speak to the Star. But employees on the ground, who agreed to be interviewed
anyway, said the problem is not yet fixed.

UCLA is “playing catch-up at a fierce pace,” said
Rita Kern, who sat on the safety committee struck
after Sangji’s death and belongs to the union that
represents research associates and lab
technicians. But while there have been
improvements, a pervasive safety culture has not
taken hold. “The message hasn’t gotten through.”

Judy Sweeney, a long-time administrative
assistant for the department, told the Star during
that October visit that she was still seeing kids
wearing flip-flops and shorts working in labs on
Saturdays.

Kern was shocked to learn that a graduate
student had been injured in a lab fire the year
before the one that killed Sangji, and no one heard
anything about it. There was no wide-scale
retraining in light of that accident.

“If they had done their job, Sheri might be alive.”

Harran’s defence team petitioned the California Court of Appeal to dismiss the
case, on the grounds that UCLA, not Harran, was Sangji’s ultimate employer.

“The felony prosecution spells ruin for the promising academic career of
Professor Harran in a profession that depends on government research grants,”
the defence team argues. The case is on holdwhile the matter is argued.

“We maintain that the laboratory fire which resulted in Ms. Sangji’s passing was a
terrible accident, but not a crime,” Harran’s lawyer, Thomas O’Brien, said in
emailed comments to the Star. “Professor Harran mourns Ms. Sangji’s loss and
has the deepest sympathies for her family and friends. This tragic accident has
led to a revolutionary change in laboratory safety practices, and now academic
laboratories throughout the United States have a new focus on safety that simply
did not exist in the normal course of business during and before 2008.”

For Sangji’s family, the judicial process has been excruciating. They chose not to
sue UCLA or Harran in civil court, saying they don’t want money, only justice.

But they also care deeply about developments beyond the courthouse.

“The only thing my mom wants to see — which the rest of us want to see too, but
for her, it’s the only thing — is that this shouldn’t happen again to anyone else,”
says Naveen.

Sangji “was going to have an impact on the world. That was just something that if
you knew Sheri, it was obvious to see,” said Kotwani, her friend from Pomona.

“That person and that impact is not going to come back. It’s hard to say what
justice will look like.”

On the day of Sangji’s funeral in Los Angeles, a fat envelope arrived at her
apartment. She had been accepted to Berkeley law school, her top choice.
March 24, 2014
People v. Patrick Harran continued yet again
Chemjobber

From Jyllian Kemsley at The Safety Zone:

  University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran had
another trial court status check last week. The result is another status check
scheduled for June 5. 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 case is on hold in the trial court while a California
appellate court considers a petition filed by Harran’s legal
team on Oct. 24, 2013, to try to get the case dismissed.

The current deadline for the district attorney’s or attorney general’s offices to file
opposition arguments is April 9, then Harran’s team has until April 30 to reply.

The legal system grinds on. I suspect that the case might be dismissed on the
question as to whether or not CalOSHA/the LA district attorney can charge Patrick
Harran with the felony violations, if he was not Sheri Sangji's employer, as opposed
to her supervisor.