University News

UCLA withdraws its appeal in campus lab death investigation

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UCLA has withdrawn its limited appeal of the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) report dealing with that agency’s investigation into a December 29, 2008, laboratory accident and subsequent death of staff research associate Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. Ms. Sangji sustained extensive burns while conducting an experiment.
 
"The university wants to direct its resources to strengthening laboratory safety programs and building a model for other institutions to follow," said Kevin Reed, UCLA’s vice chancellor for legal affairs. "We came to believe that our limited appeal of Cal/OSHA’s citations has detracted from that effort. Therefore, we took the necessary steps to withdraw the appeal on June 26." Before the technical appeal was filed, UCLA had fully mitigated the violations for which the campus had been cited and paid in full all associated fines.
 
In a Los Angeles Times report today (June 30, 2009), the head of Cal/OSHA, Len Welsh, said the agency is continuing its investigation into the accident. While Welsh stated that Cal/OSHA does not plan to revisit its original civil findings or penalties, he said it would investigate whether any criminal laws were violated and refer any such potential violations to the district attorney for additional review. A criminal review by Cal/OSHA is common in cases involving a workplace death.
 
"Considering that Cal/OSHA spent months conducting a full civil investigation, we would be disappointed if it ignored its own prior work in an effort to reach a different conclusion in its criminal review," Reed said. "UCLA cooperated fully with Cal/OSHA’s civil investigation, and we continue to believe that this was a tragic accident involving no willful negligence or criminal misconduct."
 
An experienced and skilled chemist, Ms. Sangji had in October 2008 safely and successfully performed the same experiment that went terribly awry two months later. Reed said Ms. Sangji’s laboratory notes were persuasive evidence of her skills: Each entry is detailed and complete, with the times, temperatures, calculations and volumes noted very carefully and consistently. Reed said the campus continues to believe that she was using an appropriate method, but the plunger on the syringe she was using came apart, spilling an air-sensitive chemical that ignited her clothing.
 
In an effort to emphasize the importance of lab safety at UCLA in light of this tragic accident, the campus has made multiple and far-reaching changes to lab safety programs based on a comprehensive review launched after the accident. A campus-wide lab safety committee convened by Chancellor Gene Block in the wake of the accident is finalizing its first set of recommendations to further strengthen programs, emphasize development of a culture of safety, expand outreach and training, increase accountability and oversight, and improve laboratory design.
 
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