|Background Info and Update on Case
In January 2009, UPTE-CWA 9119 member Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old UCLA lab worker, died an agonizing 18 days after a fire that never should have happened. It was her 11th week on the job and the recent college graduate had little lab experience, was provided no training, and wasn't given appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Her boss, chemistry professor Patrick Harran, asked Sheri to do an experiment that required transferring a hazardous chemical that burns on contact with air. He never asked Sheri if she had been trained, did not supervise her, and did not provide a flame-resistant lab coat and flame-resistant gloves. Instead, she was wearing synthetic latex gloves and a synthetic sweatshirt. Both of them melted onto her skin during the fire, which burned more than 40% of her body.
Cal/OSHA's criminal unit, the Bureau of Investigations, concluded that "Victim Sangji's death could have been prevented." (You can read details in our latest Update newsletter, as well as the report's conclusions on pp. 92-93.) Eventually, LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley filed 3 felony criminal charges against UCLA, the UC Board of Regents, and Professor Patrick Harran on December 27, 2011. UCLA officials were surprised and outraged by the criminal charges, vowed to stand behind the professor, and painted Sheri as a “trained chemist” who could have prevented her own death by wearing PPE.
The original February arraignment was postponed until March 7, supposedly for the last time, but on March 7 a new judge continued the arraignment until April 11 at 1:30 pm. Apparently UC and the District Attorney are close to reaching the agreement they want. We must continue writing to the DA to demand justice for Sheri Sangji and real change in lab safety culture. The next few weeks will be critical. Our pressure apparently has complicated a plea bargain – and we still can influence a settlement.
Demand Justice for Sheri: Don't Let UCLA Off the Hook
Sheri Sangji was a promising young woman working in a lab to save money to return to school. She had her whole life ahead of her, and UCLA took it away. The felony Labor Code charges against UCLA are based on violations of three sections of the California Administrative Code – which UCLA admitted it violated.
UPTE is requesting that as many members as possible write personal letters to the DA and send a copy of your letter to your state senator and Assembly member (check here for their contact information.) We believe that Sheri and her family deserve justice and that a fair outcome will send a message around the country that academic labs must provide a safe working environment for their workers, whether student or staff. Nothing like this would have happened in a commercial lab, where safety standards are rigorously enforced because companies are held criminally liable.
Contact information for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley:
|Letter to the DA:
|Your letter should be personal and in your own words. Here are some points you may wish to make:
- Thank the DA for prosecuting this case and upholding California's Labor Code. Our lives depend on it.
- Ask for justice for the Sangji family and for Sheri. Naveen, Sheri’s sister, says that Sheri’s death has destroyed her family.
- Ask for a fair outcome for this case.
- Urge the DA to have defendants plead guilty to a felony or a misdemeanor.
- Require a full sentencing report to reveal more details about what happened and what UCLA has and hasn't done to make sure labs are safe.
- At least a suspended sentence and supervised probation for Harran, to include substantial community service in a burn unit to understand the suffering he caused to Sheri.
- A substantial fine to UCLA to go to a nonprofit entity to provide training on lab safety to lab workers at UCLA, with supervised probation via an outside entity (or a joint labor-management committee) to assure that an effective Injury & Illness Prevention Program is in place.
- Give details you have from personal experience about the importance of training, supervision, and use of PPE, whether or not you work in a lab.
- Be clear and concise - however, long or short your letter is.
- Email your letter BEFORE March 30, 2012 to: firstname.lastname@example.org and BCC (blind carbon copy) to email@example.com.
If you can go to the arraignment, please contact the UPTE office in Los Angeles (310.443.5484, firstname.lastname@example.org).