Skip to Main Content

Science & Technology

February 23, 2009
Volume 87, Number 08
p. 59


Learning From Mistakes

Lab incident at UCLA highlights need to disseminate accident information and increase safety awareness

Jyllian N. Kemsley

THE ACADEMIC chemistry community lost one of its own last month when Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant in Patrick Harran's lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, died on Jan. 16 from injuries sustained in a laboratory fire.

Sangji received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Pomona College in May 2008. Courtesy of Naveen Sangji
Sangji received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Pomona College in May 2008.

UCLA officials declined to provide C&EN with specific details of the incident, pending an investigation. But according to a Dec. 30, 2008, e-mail to C&EN from department Chair Albert J. Courey, university investigators believe that on Dec. 29, Sangji was drawing tert-butyl lithium from a bottle into a syringe when the plunger came out of the syringe barrel (C&EN Online Latest News, Jan. 22). The chemical, which ignites spontaneously in air, splashed onto Sangji's clothes and set them on fire. Her hands, arms, and upper torso—about 40% of her body—suffered burns.

Most chemists I know, when they hear about someone getting hurt in a lab, immediately want to know all the details: How much material was she working with? What reaction was she trying to do? How was she trained? Was anyone else around? In Sangji's case, we should find out. Sangji was neither a student nor a postdoctoral researcher and therefore was clearly an employee of the university. Consequently, the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health is investigating the incident and should make its report public when the inquiry is complete. Other chemists may then learn from what went wrong at UCLA.

But most academic lab researchers—grad students and postdocs—often are not considered to be university employees. As a consequence, state or federal agencies may not have the jurisdiction to investigate accidents involving them. Left on their own, many universities keep incidents quiet, perhaps out of fear for their reputation or of liability. There are exceptions: Dartmouth College, for example, felt a moral and ethical responsibility to disseminate widely the results of its investigation into chemistry professor Karen E. Wetterhahn's 1996 methylmercury exposure (C&EN May 12, 1997, page 7), says Michael B. Blayney, Dartmouth's environmental health and safety (EH&S) director. But more often, all that researchers hear is murmuring through the grapevine.

INFORMATION ON industrial accidents is much more available, in large part due to the efforts of the federal Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). CSB has been lauded not just for thoroughly investigating incidents but for funneling the information back out to the chemistry community, so people can learn from the mistakes of others.

CSB has the authority to investigate incidents in academic labs and has tracked upward of 100 events in high schools, colleges, and universities that have made the news since 2006. But CSB has neither the budget nor the personnel to investigate all chemical accidents. Since research-lab accidents often cause only individual injuries and have little effect on the surrounding community, such incidents tend to be a lower priority for CSB, says Chairman John Bresland. Nevertheless, the board is trying to work with UCLA to see if there are any lessons that should be disseminated to the chemistry community.

Most chemists I know, when they hear about someone getting hurt in a lab, immediately want to know all the details.

Ultimately, however, the safety of laboratory researchers rests not with those who might investigate incidents but with those who have the power to prevent them in the first place: laboratory researchers themselves. And when it comes to developing and promoting a culture of safety, no one has more influence than the professor running the lab.

The principal investigator is the mentor, the one setting the stage for how students and other young researchers should act or behave in the lab, whether from a scientific or safety perspective, says Erik A. Talley, director of EH&S at Weill Cornell Medical College and immediate past-chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Talley also says that the increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of research requires additional vigilance. In times when biologists branch into chemistry, chemists handle biohazardous materials such as blood, and scientists of all kinds use nanoparticles whose toxicological properties are largely unknown, extra attention to safety is critical.

If there was one thing I heard repeatedly when talking with EH&S officials and safety consultants about Sangji's death, it was this: It didn't have to happen. Although we don't yet know how the UCLA tragedy unfolded, it is likely that it could have been prevented had Sangji and those around her been more conscious of laboratory safety. Hopefully the tragedy will increase such consciousness at UCLA and beyond.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.