Wednesday, June 19

UCLA professor and UC regents charged in staff member's death as a result of a lab fire

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office filed felony charges Tuesday against the UC Board of Regents and UCLA chemistry Professor Patrick Harran in relation to the 2008 death of a UCLA staff research assistant from injuries received in a campus laboratory fire.

[Updated at 3:30 p.m.] Harran and the UC regents are charged with three counts each of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. They are accused of failing to provide proper chemical safety training, to provide procedures for correcting unsafe work conditions in a timely manner and to require appropriate work clothing, according to the felony complaint.

An arrest warrant has also been issued for Harran, whose attorney indicated to the district attorney’s office that Harran will surrender at a time that is appropriate to him, said Jane Robison, a district attorney’s spokeswoman.

Harran faces a maximum of four and a half years in prison if convicted of all charges, Robison said. UCLA could be fined up to $1.5 million for each count, she said.]

Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji incurred second- and third-degree burns over nearly half her body in a Dec. 29, 2008, laboratory fire in the Molecular Sciences Building. Sangji was working with t-butyl lithium, a highly flammable air-sensitive chemical, which burst into flames during an experiment and caught her clothing on fire, according to a 2009 UCLA statement.

She was not wearing a protective lab coat, according to Bruin archives.

Sangji died 18 days later from her injuries.

Her death led to an investigation into UCLA lab-safety practices and Sangji’s training and supervision by Harran. In May 2009, UCLA was fined $31,875 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for the 2008 fire and was issued critiques of campus laboratory safety, according to Bruin archives.

UCLA subsequently increased the number of laboratory inspections and established the Center for Laboratory Safety in early 2011, which studies the effectiveness of lab-safety practices at the university, according to a UCLA statement released today.

The university “intends to mount a vigorous defense against the outrageous charges announced today,” according to the statement. The statement also said UCLA has cooperated with the district attorney’s office and Cal/OSHA, and it had not been in communication with the district attorney’s office until late last week when it was told of pending charges.

The statement said the district attorney’s decision to file charges “contradicts the findings of the state agency responsible for evaluating workplace safety,” and the “facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegations of criminal conduct.”

Attorneys for Harran and the UC regents will hear a formal reading of the charges against them in an arraignment on Jan. 12.

Compiled by Kylie Reynolds, Bruin senior staff.

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