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California Inspectors Fine UCLA Lab in Fatal Fire

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) yesterday issued four citations against the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in the 29 December fire that led to the death of a 23-year-old research assistant. Sheharbano Sangji, a 2008 graduate of Pomona College, was badly burned while working in the laboratory of Patrick Harran, professor and chair of the department, and died 18 days later.

The UCLA department was cited for Sangji's failure to wear protective clothing, for not training employees "on the hazards of occupational exposure to chemicals in a laboratory,” and for “unsafe work practices identified during inspection and not corrected in a timely manner.” The department was also fined $31,875.

A university spokesperson said that UCLA “will not contest the findings or appeal the fine.” In a statement issued this morning, Chancellor Gene Block said: “I communicated to the UCLA community plans for a comprehensive review of our laboratory inspection programs and implementation of revised procedures to ensure the safety of our researchers. ... The Cal/OSHA report will provide critical assistance with these ongoing efforts."

Neal Langerman, an officer of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health and Safety, said that it is unusual for state regulatory agencies to cite and fine university departments for safety violations. "This one is way up there on the seriousness scale,” he added.

Sangji, who had worked in the lab for 2 months, was injured while attempting to draw a quantity of the chemical t-butyl lithium from a receptacle using a syringe. The material, which is pyrophoric, burst into flame on contact with air when “the plunger was either ejected or pulled out of the syringe,” according to report’s narrative summary of the incident. The “liquid … spilled onto [Sangji’s] clothing, torso and hands …and immediately caught fire. … No appropriate clothing protection nor a laboratory coat was used while working with the pyrophoric material,” the report found. In addition, Sangji wore a “sweatshirt made of synthetic material.”

The 15-page report cites a deficiency in the department's records of safety and health training on exposure to hazardous chemicals. It notes that a safety inspection of the Harran lab by UCLA on 30 October had “identified [the failure of employees to wear required protective clothing] and recommended that laboratory coats must be worn while conducting research and handling hazardous materials in the laboratory.” But it says that the lab “did not implement procedures for correcting unsafe and unhealthy conditions, work practices and work procedures in a timely manner based on the severity of the hazard.”