UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Charged in Sheri Sangji’s DeathDecember 28th, 2011
In a news story that is very likely to have serious repercussions for those who work in academic labs, Los Angeles County charged UCLA’s Patrick Harran and the school’s regents with multiple counts of felony crimes stemming from the death of Sheri Sangji in an accident involving t-butyl lithium in 2008. A warrant has been issued for Harran’s arrest, and if convicted, he faces up to four and a half years in prison.
For those of you not familiar with the accident, you can find comprehensive coverage of it in C&EN from Jyllian Kemsley here and in the links on the right sidebar of that page. The accident had already influenced standard operating procedures at Caltech, where the use of lab coats in chemistry labs was emphasized as mandatory in the wake of Sangji’s death. She was not wearing a coat or alternative PPE garment when the accident occurred. Now that her professor must answer to felony charges of “failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, to require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training,” you’d better believe that the faculties of other schools are going to take notice. While Harran will almost certainly never spend 4.5 years behind bars, the fact that it is even a possibility is going to have everyone scrambling in CYA mode.
UCLA responded that it was baffled by yesterday’s accusations, since a California/OSHA investigation found no willful safety violations on the part of the school. By my calculation, the severity of the charges is almost certainly a tactic by the County to scare UCLA and Harran into a plea bargain/settlement. That said, one wonders if this is the shot in the arm that finally forces academia to take safety seriously. One also wonders what sort of chilling effect this will have on the freedom that grad students and postdocs are typically given to decide how they conduct experiments in the lab. I certainly don’t think that it is a bad idea for professors to become more involved in the operational aspects of their research, but one wonders how many of them will overcompensate and stifle or frustrate workers in their laboratories. One might also wonder if professors that are (typically) decades removed from bench work will be useful in the capacity of safety officers.