Chemist Charged After Researcher’s Death

A laboratory head faces criminal charges after one of his researchers died in a lab fire in 2008.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef (an unusual nickname for Jennifer) got her master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses. After four years of diving off the Gulf...

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Jan 3, 2012

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, FIR0002/FLAGSTAFFOTOS

Three years ago, 23-year-old Sheharbano Sangji, a chemistry researcher in the lab of Patrick Harran at the University of California, Los Angeles, died after the t-butyl lithium she was drawing from a bottle burst into flames, igniting her clothes and causing third-degree burns on her body. Last week (December 27), Harran—as well as the regents of the UC system—were charged with three counts each of “willful violation of an occupational health and safety standard causing the death of an employee,” according to the felony filing. Experts believe that this represents the first case of criminal prosecution over an academic lab accident in the United States, Nature reported.

UCLA has already paid around $70,000 in fines as a result of the accident, and toughened its safety policy. If convicted on the current charges, the university could face up to $1.5 million in fines for each of...

"I think this is a game-changer,” Jim Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Massachusetts, told Nature. “It will significantly affect how people think about their responsibilities now that it’s clear there’s the possibility of going to jail.”

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