Published online 6 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.447

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University fined after researcher's death

Safety failures to be addressed at University of California, Los Angeles.

UCLAUCLA has been fined after a researcher died in a lab fire.Wikimedia Commons/ Satyriconi

The University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) has been hit with a fine for multiple safety violations, following the death of a chemistry researcher in a lab fire.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined the university nearly US$32,000 on 4 May, after the death of Sheharbano 'Sheri' Sangji. Sangji, 23, died on 16 January after being critically burned on 29 December in the Molecular Science Building.

Sangji was withdrawing t-butyllithium from a container when a syringe malfunctioned, splashing her with the highly flammable material. She was not wearing a protective lab coat, and suffered extensive burns from the chemical, which ignites on contact with air.

UCLA was cited for failing to train personnel in the use of dangerous chemicals, for not requiring the wearing of protective clothing and for not correcting the deficient lab practices identified in an inspection last October.

Culture of safety

Sangji, born in Pakistan, was a 2008 graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, California, who was applying to law schools. She was hired in autumn as a research assistant in the laboratory of Patrick Harran, a professor of organic chemistry.

Harran declined to be interviewed by Nature, but in a statement said Sangji was "an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before" in his lab. But given mistakes identified by inspectors after the fire, Harran wrote, "I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials".

While at Pomona, Sangji had performed peptide chemistry research for three years, much of the time in the laboratory of organic chemist Daniel O'Leary, now at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. T-butyllithium is used sparingly in labs to remove hydrogen atoms from compounds.

Adding he had "strived to create a culture of safety", Harran wrote, "I am haunted by the memories of this tragedy. I go forward with a heavy heart in remembrance of Sheri and with a rededication to safety."

Prompt action

No internal sanctions were issued against anyone at UCLA after the death and deficiency report, a university spokesman said on 5 May.

Officials of the Californian occupational safety and health division said they knew of no other California research institution that had received a larger penalty after a fatal accident.

Cited institutions can appeal against the fine and deficiency report, but the university opted to accept the sanctions.

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Efforts to reach Sangji's family through the Islamic Center of Southern California, which oversaw the shipment of her body to Dubai, were unsuccessful. UCLA officials say the family has not filed a claim against the university, which is a prelude to a lawsuit against a state institution.

Gene Block, UCLA chancellor, said in a statement that the university has embarked on a campus-wide review of laboratory safety and practices. Flame-resistant lab coats have been purchased for lab personnel, safety training is being augmented and administrators are implementing increased internal inspections, problem identification and plans to ensure prompt corrections.

"Although substantial progress already has been made, we will continue to thoroughly monitor and assess our lab training and safety protocols," Block wrote. "As we mourn Sheri's death and grieve for her family, we are determined to rededicate ourselves to ensuring the safety" of all staff. 

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