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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Media Note | Main | Nowhere to Go But Up? »

December 28, 2011

The UCLA Lab Fatality: Criminal Charges Filed

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Posted by Derek

Most readers here will remember the fatal lab accident at UCLA in 2009 involving t-butyllithium, which took the life of graduate student Sheri Sangji. Well, there's a new sequel to that: the professor involved, Patrick Harran, has been charged along with UCLA with a felony: "willfully violating occupational health and safety standards". A warrant has been issued for his arrest; he plans to turn himself in when he returns from out of town this season. The University could face fines of up to $1.5 million per charge; Harran faces possible jail time.

This is the first time I've heard of such a case going to criminal prosecution, and I'm still not sure what I think about it. It's true that the lab was found to have several safety violations in an inspection before the accident - but, on the other hand, many working labs do, depending on what sort of standards are being applied. But it would also appear that Sangji herself was not properly prepared for handing t-butyllithium, which (as all organic chemists should know) bursts into flames spontaneously on exposure to air. She was wearing flammable clothing and no lab coat; no one should be allowed to start working with t-BuLi under those conditions. Being inexperienced, she should have been warned much more thoroughly than she appears to have been.

So something most definitely went wrong here, and the LA County DA's office has decided to treat it as a criminal matter. Well, negligence can rise to that level, under the law, so perhaps they have a point. Thoughts?

Update: here's a post that rounds up the responses to this across the blogging world.

Comments (97) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Graduate School | Safety Warnings


COMMENTS

1. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 12:39 PM writes...

I work in industry, and would likely be facing felony charges if an employee died and an investigation revealed gross negligence on my part. Academics seldom face serious consequences for things like this. I'm glad he's facing possible jail time - if he's anything like the P.I.'s at my graduate alma mater; he probably just figured he could replace the grad student easily next fall.

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2. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 1:00 PM writes...

Numerous times research advisers ask irresponsibly untrained students to deal with extremely dangerous chemicals. If you want somebody to deal with extremely dangerous chemicals as t-BuLi is (or for another example HF), you hire an expert. A postdoc who has documented experience and expertise with the chemical. A person who fully understands the risks and the dangers. A person who can react as he is trained to react in an accident. You never hire a novice. You pay of course for the expert. He is not free. You pay his skill and the years that he spent to learn how to handle the chemicals.

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3. UCLA Alum on December 28, 2011 1:02 PM writes...

Look at the flip side: if not criminal charges now, then when? How much more in violation must a lab be for someone to be charged? This lab was inspected prior to the acccident, was cited and no one did anything about it. If you are going to ignore violations and someone is injured, that is criminal negligence. I love UCLA and I have many fond memories of the very lab building in question, but the safety violations there bordered on the ridiculous.

Some say the DA is overstepping, but to a certain extent, that is their job, and case law is made by cases like this. Harran will most likely plea and get probation and community service.

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4. BCP on December 28, 2011 1:02 PM writes...

I actually think this is the right call. Someone died a nasty death here using a notoriously dangerous reagent, if we are not happy to accept the occasional death as an occupational hazard then something needs to change. Without holding the PI legally accountable in such circumstances I doubt there will be any real change.

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5. UCLA Alum on December 28, 2011 1:08 PM writes...

Anonymous said:

If you want somebody to deal with extremely dangerous chemicals as t-BuLi is (or for another example HF), you hire an expert. A postdoc who has documented experience and expertise with the chemical. A person who fully understands the risks and the dangers. A person who can react as he is trained to react in an accident. You never hire a novice. You pay of course for the expert. He is not free. You pay his skill and the years that he spent to learn how to handle the chemicals.

The riduclous part about this is that Sanji was hired as an assistant at $43K/year, probably more than a postdoc would make. It was a more temp job and the accounting is different, but they really weren't saving anything. In my opinion it wasn't about pay, it was about a culture of disregard for safety. I would bet that there are postdocs in labs on that campus right now working with similar chemicals who are doing things just as badly as Sanji did. No one cares.

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6. Mr. Fixit on December 28, 2011 1:09 PM writes...

thank you for writing about this, I think this is a tough call. I am sure she should have had more training! It is beyond terrible that someone lost their live due to a lab accident like this one that we all agree could have been avoided. Do I think the PI deserves jail time? My gut tells me no. I think he had a big role in this accident. What about everybody else around the lab? Did somebody tell her X.Y, and Z would be safer? Did she ask anyone about the hazards of tBuLi? Google search? I think this is a wake up call that everybody needs to be more careful.

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7. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 1:15 PM writes...

"The riduclous part about this is that Sanji was hired as an assistant at $43K/year, probably more than a postdoc would make. It was a more temp job and the accounting is different, but they really weren't saving anything. In my opinion it wasn't about pay, it was about a culture of disregard for safety. I would bet that there are postdocs in labs on that campus right now working with similar chemicals who are doing things just as badly as Sanji did. No one cares."

I am not focusing on the money. I agree that rarely it is the issue. I strongly insist though, that a person who has plenty of experience with a specific dangerous chemical-most logically a postdoc-should get hired to perform work with this chemical. This way you minimize the risk. Risk will always exist in chemistry research. Our duty as chemists is to minimize it.

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8. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 1:26 PM writes...

Do we know that Harran told her to use tBuLi? I'm a senior grad student now, and we have a number of younger students who just don't ask anyone before they start using reagents. We have a postdoc, but the sheer number of younger students, rotation students, and undergraduate students prevents us from keeping track of every single experiment. Official safety training is a joke; you get credit for showing up and using some common sense. We all say things like "don't work alone", but people ignore it. What to do in this case?

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9. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 1:28 PM writes...

In honesty, I'm not sure what the family wants out of this case. UCLA has REALLY changed the safety protocol in the laboratory. The family claims to want to prevent future cases from occurring, which by definition the school has changed it's habit at that school. Charging this as a criminal case that brings to question what is really the motive behind this case?

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10. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 1:34 PM writes...

Without having access to the intimate details, resorting to criminal charges seems too extreme, unless the P.I. pretty much deliberately and willfully sent her to her death. Without knowing any of the people involved, that seems unlikely - unless someone knows otherwise, we should probably assume that he's not a sociopath. But based on the details that are available, being fired and publicly disgraced does look like the bare minimum punishment.

Sending him to jail might be a good way to force other professors to clean up their act, and be a net win for science in general... but I'm personally incredibly uncomfortable with using scapegoats like that. In my grad/postdoc days I did hundreds of reactions that were at least as dangerous, and I lived to tell the tale because of a combination of department policy, group-lore, peer support, advice from supervisors, and common sense (gradually morphing into paranoia). And maybe quite a bit of luck.

Perhaps the mere threat of incarceration will be sufficient to shine some light on the way chemists are treated like expendable cannon fodder...

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11. Chemjobber on December 28, 2011 1:53 PM writes...

The intimate details are in Jyllian Kemsley's definitive C&EN article, which is linked in my handle above. The page also provides much access to PDFs of the relevant notebook pages and legal documents.

Do we know that Harran told her to use tBuLi?

In his public and private statements, Professor Harran has never disavowed the method she used; he has, however, mentioned that he had expected her to use more care.

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12. Ty on December 28, 2011 2:18 PM writes...

Def. negligence: Failure to use reasonable care, resulting in damage or injury to another.

The professor and department's lack of attention and care were responsible for a death. While it may be "common practice", it is still not right. Having this prosecution go forward will create a precedent and hopefully improve standards at all academic institutions in the future. I have always told myself that my career would be nothing if I was responsible for a single death in my lab.

The culture of academic chemistry labs needs to change (and some industrial labs too!). If that means more training, experimental protocol reviews, and more bureaucracy, then that is fine with me. Preventable deaths have no place.

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13. anonymous on December 28, 2011 2:29 PM writes...

There is a recent post in Science about lab safety

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2011_12_02/caredit.a1100134

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14. Curt F. on December 28, 2011 2:48 PM writes...

What's the role of UCLA's environmental safety office here? Did the PI think that the EHS office shared responsibility for the safety of their own labs? Did the EHS office think they shared any responsibility for safety in the chemistry lab?

I suspect that many professors currently view guaranteeing lab safety as something that is farmed out to the EHS office and is thus not their job. These charges may help promulgate an alternate view: the PIs are ultimately responsible, and have far more at stake than any EHS officer.

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15. Carl Lumma on December 28, 2011 3:07 PM writes...

The only thing worse than the accident is the way it's being blamed on the PI. Chemistry is dangerous because nature is dangerous. Getting to zero accidents will mean getting to zero chemistry in our society. Indeed, how do we know we aren't suffering from too few lab accidents? Our fear of chemistry is working tremendous harm (most dramatically through 3+ decades of energy policy failure).

I saw a video from some government org in charge of regulating university labs, which examined three famous accidents (probably I found it on this blog)... it was absolutely horrifying, and it's obvious this ruling will have tremendous impact on chemistry departments across the country.

Chemistry enrollment has collapsed, the pharmaceutical chemistry has collapsed (this blog has become its eulogy), the public and their elected representatives can't understand energy policy, glass bottles are made illegal... and the comments above indicate that professional chemists are generally clueless about the gravity of the situation.

The notion that Sangji didn't have enough training is completely absurd - she had a BS in chemistry! You are saying your professional degrees are worthless. My mother synthesized compounds for Merck for 40 years with such a degree. She had to write her thesis in German. Perhaps that's why she never had an accident, and why she wouldn't have blamed someone else if she had.

It was mentioned that the lab had been cited for safety violations. But what is the prior: How many labs have been cited? My Dad's hood looked like a junkyard... my Mom sometimes used the lab fridge, microwave, and hot plate for food. They saved more lives than lab accidents have ever claimed.

Of course safety culture is important. But Sangji was not trained in the lab where the accident occurred.

Chemistry is power over the material world. We must take responsibility for it. In the mean time I will count the deaths in coal mines as "laboratory accidents"... unfortunately, they are probably regulated by separate government agencies. In the meantime, Boxer and Feinstein would like you to know that "No research is worth a person's life".

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16. Carl Lumma on December 28, 2011 3:14 PM writes...

Sorry, not "ruling" but "charges" and "arrest warrant".

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17. Alex on December 28, 2011 3:44 PM writes...

@Carl: really good points. The bureaucratic approach/layperson ideas regarding lab safety are profoundly unhelpful, and typically lead to less productivity and no safety improvement. I have plenty of experience with well-intentioned outsiders missing the point and doing nothing other than getting in the way.

That being said, though, academic culture regarding what kinds of risks aspiring young chemists are exposed to can be pretty crazy. I think it can be improved by being more sensible at a local scale. Every lab is different, and nobody should be doing an experiment without asking around for some background info on the kinds of things that are known to go horribly wrong with that kind of procedure. And advisor coercion is very real: either do the reaction that your P.I. really wants to see the result of, even though it has a good chance of leaving you maimed or dead... or else you might not get your degree, or the publication that launches your career.

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18. exGlaxoid on December 28, 2011 4:05 PM writes...

2. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 1:00 PM writes..."Numerous times research advisers ask irresponsibly untrained students to deal with extremely dangerous chemicals. If you want somebody to deal with extremely dangerous chemicals as t-BuLi is (or for another example HF), you hire an expert. A postdoc who has documented experience and expertise with the chemical. A person who fully understands the risks and the dangers. A person who can react as he is trained to react in an accident. You never hire a novice. You pay of course for the expert. He is not free. You pay his skill and the years that he spent to learn how to handle the chemicals."

But if no one can handle "hazardous" chemicals without experience, you create a Catch-22 where new people cannot get a job, because they don't have experience, and they can't get experience without a job.

I agree that chemistry is hazardous, and that the PI and others in a lab have a duty to train and mentor students, post-docs, and staff, but I also know that you sometimes have to work with new chemicals and a BS chemist should have some idea how to look at the hazards of chemicals.

Hopefully these types of accidents will cause schools to create better safety and risk management classes, courses, and training, but I fear just the opposite-more schools will try to use "virtual labs" to train chemists, such that they have NO real lab experience or hands-on-knowledge. Then who will train them?

I guess that work well with sending all of the chemistry jobs to China, so we won't have any hands-on work here anyway...


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19. MTK on December 28, 2011 4:40 PM writes...

@16 Carl,

I honestly don't know whether the negligence exhibited here rises to the level of criminality. I'd have to hear all the details.

Having said that however, the fact that she was working without a lab coat, and apparently no one said anything, points to a culture that did not make safety a priority. That's on the prof and the department IMO.

Your point of zero accidents means zero chemistry is ridiculous. It's not about zero accidents. Safety is about minimizing the chances of an accident and minimizing the consequences when an accident happens. Honestly, I don't see any instance where a death should happen in a chemistry lab. Something went terribly wrong. Once again I don't know if it's criminal, but it is unacceptable.

As for your contention that she had a BS degree and that should be enough...you're kidding right? I don't know of a single BS lab class that uses tBuLi. Regardless, if the culture within the lab was that most people, including postdocs, did not wear labcoats, safety glasses, etc., it's not reasonable to expect that the most junior of personnel use better judgment.

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20. UCLA Alum on December 28, 2011 5:02 PM writes...

Without having access to the intimate details, resorting to criminal charges seems too extreme, unless the P.I. pretty much deliberately and willfully sent her to her death.

No, that would be negligent homicide. Which Harran is not accused of.

Harran is being charged with "willfully violating occupational health and safety standards". The lab was inspected 2 months prior to the accident and found in violation, violations that were not fixed by the time of the accident. That sounds pretty straightforward to me. I don't see how anyone can say that not performing the actions needed to put the lab in compliance is not in violation of the law. If the accident had never had happened, he still would be in violation of failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner and failing to require clothing appropriate for the work being done.

In the mean time I will count the deaths in coal mines as "laboratory accidents"... unfortunately, they are probably regulated by separate government agencies.

And there are over 2000 (and as many as 6000) coal mining deaths each year in China and about 30 in the US. If you were a coal miner, which would you chose? Simply blaming the regulation on the death of the chemical industry in the US is really, really simplifying things. I am sure Pfizer is laying off people because they can't make a good drug when they force people to wear lab coats.

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21. Anonymous on December 28, 2011 5:12 PM writes...

IANAL, but "willful" makes it sound like they'll need to prove intent, either by students testifying against him or documents proving he ordered safety regulations to be disregarded.

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22. RET on December 28, 2011 5:36 PM writes...

I believe that there is a real issue to be discussed here about responsibility. While I learned how to do all anhydrous reactions, like LDA generation, directly from undergraduate supervisors, senior graduate students, and postdocs, I read the Aldrich instruction which accompanied all organolithium reagents before using them.

To be clear University Risk Management is never going to take on this responsibility. However, is it a consensus that the direct supervisor should train each student in their lab to use all reagents prior to them working on their own or does the student, postdoc or tech have some responsibility?

I cannot relate to any PI that would threaten a group member who took a little longer to attempt a reaction due to adequate training (reading, practice, asking for help).

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23. UCLA Alum on December 28, 2011 5:38 PM writes...

IANAL, but "willful" makes it sound like they'll need to prove intent, either by students testifying against him or documents proving he ordered safety regulations to be disregarded.

Nope, in the US, willful violation is an "'act done voluntarily with either an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to,' the requirements of Acts, regulations, statutes or relevant workplace policies." They do not need proof that he ordered violation, just that he knew of the violation and acted with indifference.

When I was a grad student at UCLA (only a few years ago), we had these inspections and prepared for a few days beforehand, stopping all work to do so, to try to be in compliance. You need to do a chemical inventory as well so we were somewhat productive during the cleanup. You always knew when they were coming. Inevitably, we always failed something. It was no huge deal, but we were told (by my PI)to immediately fix the problem and that we would be re-inspected soon after.

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24. Spiny Norman on December 28, 2011 6:11 PM writes...

Anon @ 10: "...resorting to criminal charges seems too extreme, unless the P.I. pretty much deliberately and willfully sent her to her death"

I think your problem may stem from a difficulty with the English language. What, exactly, do you think "negligence" means?

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25. Chris on December 28, 2011 7:37 PM writes...

I'm a guy with a BS bio degree working as an analytical chemist. I wrote my thoughts here: http://hrtw.blogspot.com/2011/12/felony-charges-in-ucla-lab-accident.html

Agree heartily with MTK #19

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26. TX Raven on December 28, 2011 10:07 PM writes...

So, what if we outsource a prep to China and someone (God forgive) dies in the attempt?

Does anyone supporting outsourcing strategy look at the safety records at the CROs? Does anyone care, as long as it is cheap?

Just wondering...

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27. Chemjobber on December 28, 2011 11:35 PM writes...

They could grind up dried up puppy to use instead of Celite and we'd buy it, as long as it met spec.

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28. Student on December 28, 2011 11:39 PM writes...

Thought I hate to say it...graduate students are just cheap labor and basically blue-collar "advanced" jobs. As a biologist I am routinely put in a position to do BSL3 experiments in a BSL2 hood. The issue comes of the university not wanting to push the issue (so they don't have to hire more formal training staff), the PI not wanted wanting to push it (same work getting done in less time if restrictions are enforced), and the grad students not wanting to push it (Takes longer to graduate and pisses off your boss). Once I accepted that I am doing blue-collar labor, everything started making more sense..

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29. DrSnowboard on December 29, 2011 4:40 AM writes...

I disagree with Carl Lumma's comments. Zero accidents is an ideal that won't be achieved but to say (I'm paraphrasing) that a certain level of accidents is acceptable in a lab is wrong. The skill in chemistry is managing risk to do creative things with dangerous reagents, safely. My feeling is that this prosecution is correct, everything that happened in the labs that I was responsible for, I was accountable for. Yes, the individual chemist could contribute an element of negligence but if the culture of questioning and seeking advice, without blame, is not there then that is the managers responsibility and they should not expect to be absolved of that.

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30. Anonalso on December 29, 2011 7:14 AM writes...

I have been thinking a lot about this and reading through the comments reinforces my own musings on chemical education/training.

1. Accidents happen. But has been stated many times, understanding the dangers posed by chemicals and properly preparing for the worst helps to minimize those incidents.

2. As a postdoc, I saw many techniques that were questionable. However, the PI was not aware of any of this, because their nice office was located miles away from the lab. If a PI's office was located in a more central location to the lab, I have a feeling things would/could have been corrected.

3. Speaking of training/expertise -- isn't that why there are PIs? They are supposed to be at the highest level of subject. PIs should be able to show any student when asked any technique when asked. (I know this is huge stretch and will piss off a lot of PIs in the process, but your job is education and research).

4. As for chemical education, maybe we should stop with teaching that PCC is the only oxidation method and actually teach methods students would use in the real world. Profs could actually take time teaching about current techniques and hazards associated with each rather than planning on how to pass the ACS exam for OChem. MY common interview question for new hires is an oxidation of an alcohol to a aldehyde. I do not know how many times I hear PCC and then umm...

Okay, enough of my rants.

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31. RichardA on December 29, 2011 7:58 AM writes...

Those tBuLi bottles are packaged in the most ridiculous way.

Work should be done on a safer way to extract and transfering liquids in lab.

Will someone on this?

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32. Nick on December 29, 2011 8:37 AM writes...

33 wrote:

"Those tBuLi bottles are packaged in the most ridiculous way. Work should be done on a safer way to extract and transfering liquids in lab."


Nothing wrong with the bottles. Ever heard of cannulation?

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33. mmol on December 29, 2011 9:18 AM writes...

Stop paying lip service to the bans we all have on lone working....... and that applies as much to grad students and postdocs who do it as it does to PIs who turn a blind eye or (tacitly) encourage it........

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34. The Cadaverine truth on December 29, 2011 10:14 AM writes...

It was always a running joke with PI's that grad students were expendable and exploitable. I saw this more prevalent in students from abroad, especially from Asia. I don't condone this type of treatment for students in anyway, but I believe complete immersion in the field for 4-6 years is necessary to become a true master of the art that we call chemistry. However, the lack of practical training in any lab situation is sheer negligence and the PI’s must be held accountable. It seems the lack of accountability is becoming a plague on our society as whole.
As far as all BuLi solution packaging; I’m sure Aldrich Chemical is all ears for a better solution!

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35. SweetPea on December 29, 2011 10:34 AM writes...

Is there a web resource showing how to use t-BuLi safely?

If not, then as practising chemists we owe it to each other to create one.

Some academics, like some companies, like some countries will always be deficient in their standards. Prosecution after the event offers cold comfort.

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36. Chemjobber on December 29, 2011 10:49 AM writes...

SweetPea: Lots of academically produced YouTube videos (like the one I've linked above from UCLA) have come out in the past 2 years or so.

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37. Rosalind on December 29, 2011 11:11 AM writes...

I completely disagree with Carl Lumma.

You have to take the time to learn how to be a good trainer, and it's not rocket surgery. At Wyeth (pre-Pfizer), we had a one-week cGMP Train The Trainer course that was pretty decent and explained about different learning styles and mentoring folks through the learning process. Every industrial employer I've ever had, including PFE post-WYE takeover, made a point of hammering into my head, "You may have done X that way at (previous company), but now we want you to do it THIS way, because we believe that This Way is better." In the five academic labs I've worked in, only one ever bothered with such an effort.

I've seen the same thing that Student @28 cites in biology labs, to the point that PIs working with select agents refuse to install federally mandated security controls. Their rationale, when confronted by the feds and EH&S with the fact that anyone could walk into their lab, pick up some BSL3 organisms replete with every virulence factor you can imagine, and walk out unnoticed, was, "I'm the expert, who do these government goons think they are anyway?" Uh, they are also experts from CDC and USARMIID, precious. You're not the only special snowflake.

Your ma managed to synthesize complex things with only a BS? Hey, I have a picture of my dad sitting at his TRS-80 surrounded by beakers of flammable solvents, half-cooked polymer goop and an ashtray with a cigarette in his hand. How nice for both of us. Dad also routinely complained that chemists graduating in the '70s weren't trained to handle chemicals properly coming out of school, so apparently "poorly-trained BS grads" has been an issue for many decades.

I think it's not going to work especially well that they make an example out of one academic, in terms of changing the safety culture, but I imagine they feel that it's one thing they can do quickly that doesn't involve putting a hard stop on all UCLA research pending individual lab reviews. It's not like academia can get a Consent Decree.

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38. UCLA Alum on December 29, 2011 12:23 PM writes...

Anonymous wrote:

In honesty, I'm not sure what the family wants out of this case.

Well, the DA prosecutes the case, not the family, they have no say in whether this is prosecuted or not.

But, they seem to be agreeing with going down this path. I can understand why. UCLA was fined $31K and tightened up its compliance. Imaging if that was BP or Merck, and they were found to be in violation of safetly laws, ignored when they were cited and when someone died as a result, were only fined $31K. People would be understandably upset.

I am not going to give them credit for tightening up their compliance, they are just now doing what is mandated by the law, you don't get kudos for doing what you were supposed to be doing to begin with.

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39. processchemist on December 29, 2011 1:37 PM writes...

In chemistry, safety is a matter of scientific culture, and in recent years IMHO the scientific culture of many environments is declining. Usually in our line of work what you don't know may harm you (on the bench) or kill you (in large scale and plant operations). I find appropriate the filing of a criminal charge: maybe Sangji was a negligent chemist, but an environment where safety is serious stuff (and not only a burden of papers and training courses) should minimize the probabily of such a gross accident, and not only with uninflammable clothes.
I heard of chemists handling grignard reagents "en plein air", I've seen stupid behaviours with gas cylinders, I've seen runaway reactions out of control in pilot plants, but I've never seen a dead or seriously injured chemist or plant operator, and I don't think it's only a matter of luck.

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40. gippgig on December 29, 2011 3:47 PM writes...

Some though