Regulators find deficiencies in university's safety procedures, training and recordkeeping

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has been fined nearly $32,000 (?21,340) following the death of a laboratory assistant in January. In its 4 May report, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) concluded that there are significant weaknesses in the school’s hazardous chemical training, workplace safety procedures and laboratory recordkeeping.

The fatal lab accident occurred in December when a 23-year-old researcher, Sheharbano Sangji, was working with t-butyl lithium - a highly flammable compound that spontaneously burns upon exposure to air. While extracting the reagent, the barrel in the syringe came undone, releasing the material. It immediately caught fire, and Sangji sustained third degree burns over 43 per cent of her body. She died only weeks later.

In its report, Cal/OSHA notes that Sangji was not wearing appropriate body protection during her work, despite an October 2008 recommendation that lab coats be worn while conducting research or handling hazardous materials in the lab. The report also indicates that quantities of flammable solvents kept outside designated cabinets exceeded the US National Fire Protection Association’s limit.

The report goes on to recommend that UCLA cover very specific information in its lab safety training programmes, including methods that may be used to detect the presence or release of hazardous chemicals, the physical and health hazards of chemicals in the work area, and measures that researchers can take to protect themselves.

Undocumented training

Cal/OSHA found no records of relevant health and safety training for employees stationed in the lab where Sangji worked. UCLA says Sangji was trained in general lab safety as well as the specific procedure she was performing when the accident took place, but that training was not recorded.

’Although substantial progress has already been made, we will continue to thoroughly monitor and assess our lab training and safety protocols as an integral component of our daily operations,’ the university’s Chancellor, Gene Block, said in a 4 May statement. ’The Cal/OSHA report will provide critical assistance with these ongoing efforts.’

The changes at UCLA following the tragic event include a new requirement for each laboratory to quantify chemical, biological and other hazards, to assess potential risks based on lab activities, and to specify appropriate protective equipment. The school also intends to categorise labs based on potential risk, and conduct more rigorous follow-up for those with the greatest risk. 

The campus has also updated standard operating procedures for handling pyrophorics like the t-butyl lithium.

UCLA says it will not contest Cal/OSHA’s findings or appeal the fine, which is due to be paid in June. A committee has also been established to conduct a campus-wide review of lab safety procedures. 

Russ Phifer, who chairs the American Chemical Society’s chemical health and safety division, says Cal/OSHA’s actions were justified. If the violations occurred in a state with a federal OSHA programme, he notes, the fines would have been significantly higher - possibly as much as $100,000.

The more interesting issue will be the possibility of civil action for wrongful death or negligence on the part of UCLA or the principal investigator involved, Phifer suggests. The incident will at least have prompted other departments to correct any similar problems in their own labs, he says. ’I suspect there were many, many schools that took a closer look at their own safety programmes and training documentation,’ Phifer states. ’The only silver lining that ever comes out of a case like this is increased awareness.’

But Robert Latsch, a chemical safety specialist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, US, is concerned that these preventable accidents could still happen elsewhere. ’We are in the situation of policing ourselves,’ he tells Chemistry World. ’That means that we cannot substitute standards that are easier to meet for the standards that will be used to judge us when something goes wrong.’ He hopes that safety practices at universities will be carefully re-evaluated to determine whether they meet current standards. 

’It appears that this reassessment is beginning to happen,’ Latsch says. ’I am sure that it will continue.’

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe