US university awaits news on whether it faces criminal charges for fatal lab accident

One year after a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US died following an accident in the lab, the university awaits news on whether criminal charges will be filed against the chemistry department or any of its employees. 

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) provided a full report on the incident - caused apparently by the inappropriate handling of a pyrophoric chemical - to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s (DA) Office earlier this month. The DA’s office (the equivalent of the Crown Prosecutor in the UK) says the case will now be reviewed to decide whether to file charges in conjunction with the death. 

Sheri Sangji died in early 2009 just weeks after sustaining third degree burns over 40 per cent of her body, when the t-butyl lithium she was working with ignited. 

In May 2009, UCLA was fined nearly $32,000 (?19,820) in conjunction with Sangji’s death, following an initial report where Cal/OSHA noted that the victim was not wearing appropriate body protection during her work, despite an earlier recommendation that lab coats be worn while conducting research or handling hazardous materials in UCLA’s labs. The report also indicated that quantities of flammable solvents kept outside designated cabinets in the lab she was working in exceeded the US National Fire Protection Association’s limit. 

In a 13 January statement, UCLA said it was ’extremely disappointed’ that Cal/OSHA had chosen to pass documents over to the DA’s office. ’UCLA strongly disagrees with any pursuit of criminal charges,’ the statement reads. ’The campus believes that Ms. Sangji’s death resulted from a tragic accident involving no wilful negligence and was unrelated to the record-keeping, inspections and follow-ups that have been the focus of Cal/OSHA; any criminal charges are clearly unwarranted.’

The Los Angeles DA’s office says it will make public the contents of the full Cal/OSHA report only if criminal charges are pursued. If no charges are filed, then the case and the full findings will never be released. 

Call for full disclosure 

Robert Latsch, a chemical safety specialist at Case Western Reserve University in the US, is disturbed by the latest developments. ’It looks like they are not willing to say what they found, and if the Los Angeles DA decides not to press charges then we will never know exactly what happened,’ he tells Chemistry World

’The academic chemistry community would benefit greatly from this information because they basically run to their own beat and don’t necessarily follow what everybody else considers to be normal business practice,’ Latsch adds. 

UCLA says it ’continues to focus efforts on strengthening laboratory safety programmes,’ and has made ’multiple and far-reaching enhancements’ to its lab safety protocols since the incident last year.

Adding fuel to the fire is a recent explosion in the chemistry department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, US, which severely injured a graduate student. The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) - an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents - is now examining the accident. The event occurred on 7 January, apparently during the handling of a high-energy metal compound which suddenly detonated. 

John Bresland, the CSB’s chairman, referenced the UCLA fatality in a 19 January statement about the Texas Tech incident. ’We see serious accidents in high school and university labs every year,’ he stated. ’I believe it is time to begin examining these accidents to see if they can be prevented through the kind of rigorous safety management systems that we and others have advocated in industrial settings.’ 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe