She was wearing a polyester sweater, which caught on fire. Her labmates used a lab coat and water from the sink to put out the flames. She was transported to the hospital, where she died of injuries from her burns on January 16, 2009.
The news: Yesterday, the LA Times reported that Professor Harran and the UC Regents are both charged by the LA County District Attorney's office with 3 felony counts of "Willful Violation of Occupational Health and Safety Standard Causing the Death of An Employee." The 3 counts have to do with (in Paul's formulation) "failing to correct unsafe work conditions in a timely manner, to require clothing appropriate for the work being done and to provide proper chemical safety training." Harran faces a maximum 4.5 years in jail, while UCLA faces a maximum $4.5 million in fines if found guilty.
The reaction of the charged: Professor Harran is out of town and will surrender himself when he returns, according to his attorney. Harran's bail is set at $20,000.
UCLA has come out swinging in their press release. An excerpt:
Following a meeting with the district attorney in October 2010, UCLA had not been contacted by the district attorney or received any requests for documents or interviews until being notified about pending charges two days before Christmas. The district attorney's decision to file charges today is truly baffling and directly contradicts the findings of the state agency responsible for evaluating workplace safety.I find it ironic that neither the names of Professor Harran nor Ms. Sangji are included in their press release. As I expressed in an e-mail at the time of the founding of the center, "I find most of UCLA's changes (the high-profile chancellor-level surprise inspections, the lab safety center) to be the worst sort of top-down cosmetic change; it will irritate bench-level workers, alienate PIs and promote the feeling that most post-accident safety changes are about restoring the image of the institution rather than promoting the safety of the individual worker."
Since the accident, UCLA has dramatically increased the number of laboratory inspections and established even more rigorous safety standards. UCLA's recently created Center for Laboratory Safety has become a leader in the field, and other universities and research organizations look to the center as a comprehensive resource on lab safety.
The facts provide absolutely no basis for the appalling allegation of criminal conduct, and UCLA is confident an impartial jury would agree.
I think this press release suggests that I might have been right. Harran's sense that "the administration and staff are scrambling to protect their own [hides]" is pretty much dead on as well.
The public reaction: Online comments on the articles are pretty much a mixed bag of idiocy, overreaction to over-litigiousness and appeal to authority. On the other hand, I was struck by the comment of a certain UC-Irvine professor (scroll down):
this JACS paper and some analytical/computation work; I would consider her considerably more experienced than your average 1st year graduate student. That said, it doesn't speak directly to her ability to manipulate pyrophorics.
My speculation: Just like Paul, I can't imagine that Professor Harran will actually serve any jail time for this; I presume that this is an opening gambit between the DA's office, the UC Regents and Harran to extract some sort of plea bargain. I predict fines for the UC system, some administrative changes and community service for Harran.
The repercussions for the academic synthetic community are large and severe. Professor Patrick Harran is not a small name in synthetic chemistry; he's well known for the quality of his work, especially for a relatively young researcher. I believe the level of unpreparedness and the lack of safety in his laboratory was no more than one standard deviation away from the median synthetic lab in academia.
Because of that, this case cannot be swept under the rug or forgotten. Pictures of Professor Harran and Ms. Sangji will grace Powerpoint slides of safety offices throughout the US academic science community from now on; I predict that "You don't want to be another UCLA" will become a refrain from top to bottom.
Finally, I'm on record saying that (this is the full quote): "I think that it will take a professor (Patrick Harran?) being railroaded to really engender change on the part of academia overall, i.e. some professor being punished (and probably unfairly) that will *really* get the academic chemistry community to seriously address the issue from the professor level down." We're about to find out, and a lot sooner than I expected.