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Professor fined $10,000 in death of UCLA lab worker

by Joan Lichterman

In a case that had transfixed the scientific community, the case against UCLA professor Patrick Harran in the 2009 death of 23-year-old staff research associate Sheharbano (“Sheri”) Sangji was settled on June 20 in a deal that “all but frees him from criminal liability,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Charged with four felony counts of willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards” in Sangji’s death, “Harran had faced up to 4-1/2 years in prison if convicted,” the Times reported on June 20. Instead, under a “deferred prosecution agreement,” Harran was ordered to complete community service and pay a $10,000 fine to the burn center where Sangji was treated.

The charges against him will be dropped if he completes his community service requirements in the next five years and his lab has no further safety violations.

The judge, apparently moved by testimony from Sangji’s family and friends, had doubled the fine and Harran’s community service obligation. Sangji’s family and members of UPTE’s Health and Safety Committee were disappointed that the case wasn’t tried. Naveen Sangji, sister of the victim, said the recent settlement is “barely a slap on the wrist.” No academic in the U.S. “had ever been charged criminally in a lab accident death,” according to the June 20 Toronto Star, “setting off arguments “about whether academia should — or would ever be able to — match the safety record of industrial labs.”

Reactions of chemists and safety professionals may be seen in the journal Nature, as well as The Safety Zone, a Chemical & Engineering News blog. (See links at UPTE’s website, or contact joan@upte-cwa.org.)

New report on lab safety

As a result of serious incidents and deaths in academic labs, including the Sangji case, the National Research Council formed a panel to produce recommendations for making laboratory science safer.

A memorial to Sangji from her UCLA coworkers. (Rita Kern, photo)

The National Academies Press published their report and recommendations last month (Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research). This is the first paragraph of its July 31 press release:

“Everyone involved in the academic chemical research enterprise – from researchers and principal investigators to university leadership – has an important role to play in establishing and promoting a strong, positive safety culture...This requires a constant commitment to safety organization-wide and emphasis on identifying and solving problems, rather than merely adhering to a set of rules and assigning blame when those rules are not followed.”  

UPTE has bargained stronger health and safety contract protections for its members, and has an active program of health and safety training. To learn more, contact your local or sign up for a class at www.upte.org/academy.

Joan Lichterman is UPTE’s health and safety director.


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