Safety and OSHA News

Professor avoids prison in death of student due to lab fire

A deal with prosecutors will keep a university professor out of prison in connection with the death of a student who wasn’t wearing proper protection while handling hazardous chemicals in a lab. 

Under the agreement that has been approved by a judge, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran has agreed to:

  • acknowledge he was responsible for safety in the lab and was the direct supervisor of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, who died in 2009, 18 days after a lab fire burned nearly half of her body
  • pay a $10,000 fine, which will go to the Grossman Burn Center, and
  • perform 800 hours of community service at UCLA’s hospital.

Harran will also speak to incoming UCLA students majoring in chemistry or biological sciences about lab safety.

If Harran successfully completes the terms of the agreement, four felony counts of willfully violating California occupational safety and health standards against him will be dropped. Prosecutors had accused him of failing to properly train Sangji in handling hazardous substances and not requiring the use of protective equipment.

Harran faced 4.5 years in prison if convicted of those charges at trial.

The chemistry professor admitted no wrongdoing in the case.

Initially, UCLA had opposed charges brought against the university but later dropped its appeal and accepted responsibility for the incident. It paid $31,875 in Cal/OSHA fines in connection with the investigation of the incident. The university also adopted a list of safety measures and established a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji’s name.

Sangji, 23, wasn’t wearing a protective lab coat when a syringe she was handling fell apart, leaking a chemical that ignites when exposed to air.

Her family isn’t happy with the settlement. “We are extremely disappointed that the Los Angeles District Attorney chose to settle this case rather than pursue a trial and seek justice for Sheri,” a statement from the family said. “We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory.”

The case brought attention to the need for increased college and university lab safety across the country.

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