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Update, July 27, 2012: News from the court hearing has been added.

Four days after Christmas 2008, a 23-year-old research associate working in a UCLA laboratory accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe while conducting an experiment.

The syringe contained a solution that combusts upon contact with air. The solution spilled onto Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji’s hands and torso. Her polyester sweater burst into flames. She wasn’t wearing a lab coat; no one had told her she had to.

At the direction of her boss, chemistry professor Patrick Harran, Sangji had been trying to produce a chemical that held promise as an appetite suppressant. She was unsupervised.

A postdoctoral fellow from China, working nearby, tried to smother the fire with his own lab coat but didn’t think to put Sangji under an emergency shower a few feet away. By this point, deep burns covered almost half of her body. She died 18 days later. 

The accident brought into focus the dangers inside university laboratories where students and employees, sometimes working without proper training or supervision, routinely handle toxic, flammable and explosive compounds. As a result of the fatality, the university was cited by the state and has since adopted a series of safety measures. 

But one of UCLA’s star chemists now finds himself in an unusual setting – criminal court.

Three years after the fire at UCLA’s Molecular Sciences Building, Harran became the first American university professor to face a felony complaint in the wake of a worker death. The December 2011 complaint also names the University of California Board of Regents.

Harran and the regents stand accused of failing to provide safety training and protective gear to Sangji, lapses that caused her fatal injuries.

On Friday, July 27, the criminal case against the UC regents was dropped after they agreed to adopt a lengthy list of safety measures and establish a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name. The case against Harran, who faces up to 4½ years in jail, continues. His arraignment was postponed until Sept. 5.

Sangji’s older sister, Naveen, a surgical resident in Boston, wants to see Harran behind bars. “If this were a regular person out on the street who got drunk and killed someone,” she said, “he would be going to jail.”

At the time of Sangji’s death, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, already had begun an inquiry into the accident at UCLA. The university was cited for four violations in May 2009; it paid a $31,875 fine.

In December 2009, Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations, which looks into all worker fatalities in the state, recommended that Harran and the UC regents be charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony labor code violations for failing to maintain a safe working environment.

“Dr. Harran,” investigator Brian Baudendistel concluded in a 95-page report, “permitted Victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.”

Harran, 42, did not respond to interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting. In a 2009 statement to the Los Angeles Times, he called Sangji’s death a “tragic accident. Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab.”

UCLA officials declined interview requests, pointing to a written statement issued by Chancellor Gene Block in January. 

“Sheri Sangji’s death was strongly felt by everyone at UCLA, and we were deeply saddened by the loss of a member of our community,” Block wrote. “I made a pledge then that we would go above and beyond existing policies and regulations to become a model of campus safety. And we have.”

Baudendistel referred the Harran case to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for prosecution. The DA pressed charges in December 2011, focusing on the labor code violations. Academic and industrial chemists were stunned.

“This has had major, major repercussions in a lot of places,” said James Kaufman, a former Dow Chemical researchers and who is now president and CEO of the nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute.

A federal investigative agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, uncovered what it called “safety gaps” in university labs that threatened more than 110,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the United States.

The American Chemical Society, a professional association for chemists, assembled a task force and produced a draft report that recommends ways to change the “safety culture” in academia. The study, its authors wrote, was prompted by “devastating incidents in academic laboratories and observations, by many, that university and college graduates do not have strong safety skills.”

‘A scientist’s scientist’

Sheri Sangji was raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and graduated from Pomona College in May 2008. A superior student and athlete, she earned a degree in chemistry but had no plans to go into the field.

Four months after graduation, hoping to make money for law school, Sangji interviewed for a position at UCLA advertised by Harran. The professor was impressed, and Sangji began work on Oct. 13, 2008.

Four days later, Harran watched her perform a small-scale experiment using tert-Butyllithium solution, a chemical that, according to its manufacturer, is “spontaneously flammable in air.” Sangji did a “great job,” Harran told Baudendistel.

Harran had come to UCLA as a tenured professor the previous July, having been recruited from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he’d won a number of honors.

“He was a scientist’s scientist,” said Steven McKnight, chairman of the biochemistry department at UT Southwestern. “He really wanted to dig in and make discoveries of consequence.”

On Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji reported for work in Room 4221 and was given an assignment: Harran, the lab’s principal investigator, wanted her to replicate the chemical reaction she’d performed Oct. 17, but on a scale three times larger.

As Sangji used a 60-milliliter plastic syringe to transfer tert-Butyllithium from a bottle to a glass flask, she inadvertently pulled out the plunger, spilling the solution and triggering a flash fire.

Sangji was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. That afternoon, a hospital social worker called Naveen Sangji, then studying medicine at Harvard. 

“She told me Sheri had been in an accident and described what happened,” Naveen Sangji said. “As a medical student, I could understand the gravity of what she was saying.” She caught a flight from Boston to Los Angeles early the next morning.

Naveen Sangji went straight from the airport to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, where Sheri had been transferred. Her parents, who lived in Toronto, flew in from the United Arab Emirates. 

“When my dad arrived, he put his hand on hers lightly through the sheet, and she screamed because it was so painful,” she said. “And we couldn’t touch her anywhere except her face.” 

Sheri Sangji died Jan. 16, 2009.

Felony charge and hard questions

In the months afterward, Naveen Sangji pressed UCLA officials for details on the accident. She found the responses wanting. The university, she believed, was trying to make it appear that her sister had been an experienced chemist and that the fire had been her fault. 

In an email to Naveen Sangji on June 17, 2009, Block recalled the “elegant and successful way” Sheri had performed the tert-Butyllithium experiment eight months earlier. Block noted that Cal/OSHA had “found no willful violations of regulations or laws by UCLA personnel” and that “many corrective measures ordered by our inspectors were taken before the tragic accident, though they were not properly documented.”

Naveen Sangji was gratified when, in December 2009, Cal/OSHA’s Baudendistel issued his report recommending that Harran and UCLA be charged with felonies. There had been, he wrote, “a systemic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA.”

In its complaint, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office accuses Harran and the UC regents of “willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing the death of an employee.”

Following the Sangji accident, and another at Texas Tech University that badly injured a graduate chemistry student in January 2010, the Chemical Safety Board began an investigation of lab safety at academic institutions. In a report last fall, the board, which can make recommendations but can’t regulate, said it had documented 120 incidents at university labs since 2001.

“Fiefdoms” in academia were partly to blame, the board found: “At some academic institutions, (principal investigators) may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom.” 

Among other things, the board recommended that Texas Tech revamp its lab safety program by documenting and acting on near-misses that could portend more serious accidents. The university has done so, board officials say.

UCLA, for its part, has created a Center for Laboratory Safety, which, Block said in his January statement, will “identify and institute best practices in safety, going beyond the minimum requirements of outside agencies so that we can hold our laboratories to even higher standards.”

The real-world impacts remain to be seen. 

“I think the university is trying,” said Rita Kern, a staff research associate in the UCLA Department of Medicine who sits on the health and safety committee of University Professional & Technical Employees – Communications Workers of America Local 9119, the union to which Sheri Sangji belonged at the time of her death. “Some things have changed, but it’s like turning a big boat in the middle of the ocean. It doesn’t turn very fast.”

Morris is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. This story is a joint project with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Jim Morris has been a journalist since 1978, specializing in coverage of the environment and public health. He has won more than 50 awards for his work including the George Polk Award, the Sidney Hillman Award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award and five Texas Headliners awards. He directed a global investigation of the asbestos industry that won the first-place John B. Oakes Award for environmental reporting from Columbia University in 2011, and an IRE Medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has worked for newspapers in Texas and California, as well as publications such as U.S. News & World Report and Congressional Quarterly in Washington.