Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Felony Charges in UCLA Lab Accident

The chemistry blogs today are abuzz with the news that University of California regents and a professor at UCLA are facing felony charges after the death of a lab assistant in a lab fire back in 2008.  The UC system and Professor Patrick Harran face three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.

In the years I've spent in labs, both as an undergraduate and as a professional, safety has been treated in a fairly cavalier manner.   Sure, each lab course would give you a safety lecture, maybe show a video, give a little quiz.  But my biggest quibble is with the lack of training for and communication of specific hazards.  The lab assistant in this case, Sheri Sangji, had an undergraduate degree in chemistry; but was she ever trained in proper handling technique for pyrophoric materials?  Well...the prof says yes, but he never documented any such training (as required by Cal/OSHA and UCLA), so we may never know.  In addition, it is likely the lack of a lab coat that killed her.  Two months before the fire, a UCLA safety audit noted that safety glasses, lab coats, and gloves were not being worn in Harran's lab.  They were given a December 5th deadline to take corrective action.  Sherri Sangji's accident occurred December 29th.

So are the professor or the UC at fault?  This is a dicey question.  Glancing through the chemistry blogs and comments today, no one seems to think that professor Harran should serve time.  But most seem to feel that this may be the kick in the butt that academia needs to improve its laboratory safety culture.  But what about industry?  Most of what I've read on the tubes today seems to imply that industrial safety practices are far superior to those in academia, and that professionals are responsible for their own safety.

This is all fine and good when your lab is made up of PhD- and MS-level chemists.  The industry I work in, environmental analysis, is a different horse altogether.  The vast majority of analysts I've worked with had an undergraduate degree--in science.  For example, my BS is in Molecular Biology.  Yes, this is a great foundation for any laboratory work, but the amount of chemistry I didn't take means that I was not as well prepared as a chem grad might be.  In addition, a lot of work in our labs is performed by technicians, most of whom have never taken a chemistry course, and some of whom can barely speak or read English.  How can we just give these guys a stack of MSDS sheets and hope all goes well?

Some things I've seen that scared me:

- Analysts working with concentrated mercury salt solutions without gloves
- Folks walking around the lab with gloved hands, touching doorknobs, telephones, keyboards, etc.
- Technicians synthesizing diazomethane
- Organic extractions and metals digestions performed in the same hood; the supervisor didn't even know the dangers of nitroacetone

That's just a few I could remember off the top of my head.  So if these charges are going to clean up academic lab safety, what will it take to clean up industry?


  1. I work in the EH&S Department at USC, where unfortunately, I see these same things. I routinely report grad students in shorts, a t-shirt, sandals, rubber gloves, and goggles.

    You can understand why I am withholding my name.

  2. Remembered one more bad one--cyanide waste in the acid waste container.

  3. I did that sin myself - while working for a small company in Arizona, I poured a reaction mixture waste containing about 10g of sodium cyanoborohydride (a rather innocuous reagent on its own)into a common solvent waste drum. There it got acidified from all that spent TFA, and when the waste barrel made it to the chemical waste treatment company they detected a hydrogen cyanide odor while pouring out the stuff. They got extremely upset (they thought we were trying to sneak on them a super hazardous-level waste) and they threatened to walk out of our contract; I heard about this incident repeatedly from our top management - apparently it was a pretty expensive mistake to make.

  4. In the 1980's, a couple of research labs at USC medical school got busted for radioactivity violations by the NRC. As I recall, criminal charges were also filed against at least one principle investigator. I don't know whatever came of it, but in my lab across town, we certainly had our "come to Jesus" talk about radiation/lab safety by the head of the lab. Jail time is always an attention getter.