Did Sheri Sangji Die in Vain?August 4th, 2012
I was away last week, and I’m still processing all of the recent developments in the Patrick Harran case. Harran, a chemistry professor at UCLA, is facing three felony charges in the wake of the death of Sheri Sangji in a lab accident involving t-butyllithum. Last week, the Los Angeles district attorney dropped charges against UCLA in exchange for its acceptance of responsibility for the safety conditions in the Harran lab and the establishment of an improved safety program. The agreement does not immediately affect the case against Harran, whose legal team filed a seperate motion to quash the charges against him because the state safety investigator allegedly committed murder as a juvenile (WTF?!). The court will rule on the motion next month.
I started drafting this post by jotting down a list of thoughts on the case, but they were too muddled to be of value. The situation is a mess, and what trumps my frustration in our legal system is my frustration in the culture of our profession.
You’d have hoped that the academic community would have straightened up in the wake of such a tragic accident. The circumstances of how Sangji died are horrifying: the fire covered 50% of her body in burns; the flesh in her hands burned off leaving exposed tendons; her abdominal wall was destroyed; she took 18 agonizing days to die. It was brutal:
If you watch that video, produced by California Watch and The Center for Public Integrity, you’ll find this statement from Jim Kaufman of The Laboratory Safety Institute:
This was a tsunami throughout academia that criminal charges were being filed against the university. I think that good things are going to come as a result of this and that Sheri Sangji’s death will not be in vain.
Allow me to preface my next statement by apologizing to the Sangji family for my lack of tact, but I am afraid that Sheri did die in vain. Harran can be punished to the fullest extent of the law and UCLA can throw all sorts of money at safety initiatives, but those actions are not solutions to the underlying problem here. The most important issue is that thousands of young, inexperienced researchers in university labs are performing chemical research with a gross lack of understanding of the hazards of their work. And, to me, it appears that the Sangji story has done little to change that.
Earlier this week, I took an informal survey of some of my colleagues by posing the following question:
t-butyllithium reacts violently with air. The guy in the hood next to you spills a solution of it on himself and catches on fire. What should you do?
The majority of people I asked responded they should find a fire blanket and smother the flames. (Recall, this is roughly what the first labmate to treat Sangji did.) If a person said to “use the safety shower”, in about half of cases I could knock them off this (correct) idea by saying “but tBuLi reacts violently with water.” Just a couple of people had the confidence to insist that while it might seem counter-intuitive, the shower is the best option because the tBuLi will react quickly (probably before you even reach the shower) and the large volume of water will suppress the fire and dissipate the heat.
The extent of our systemic ignorance floored me given the relatively high level of news coverage devoted to Sangji’s accident. I realized that while I (personally) have been exposed to a lot of information about the case through paying attention to C&EN and blogs, the majority of people around here seem to know little or nothing about the accident. In spite of the extensive news coverage and publicity, we (as a community) have largely failed to effectively incorporate any “lessons learned” from the accident into our training.
We’ve got a lot of work to do to fix the culture of safety in academia. It’s a shame we never seized the opportunity presented by Sheri Sangji’s death.