Friday, June 20, 2014

BREAKING: Professor Patrick Harran and LADA reach agreement: community service and fine, no jail, no trial contingent on meeting agreement

From C&EN's crack staff (Drs. Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice), the latest tweet on the legal proceedings with Professor Patrick Harran on the lab accident and subsequent death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji:
Harran court agreemnt requires comm svc & fine, met=charges drop in 5y, not met=trial
I don't think anyone thought that there would be a trial, and here we are. Details as they break.

UPDATE: The details from the Los Angeles Times' Kim Christensen, who's been on this case from the beginning:
...Harran, charged with four felony counts of willfully violating state occupational health and safety standards, had faced up to 4-1/2 years in prison if convicted. 
Instead, under an agreement approved by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli, Harran, 44, was ordered to pay $10,000 to the Grossman Burn Center and to perform 800 hours of community service....
$10,000? That seems kind of low, but I don't know what California law is for that.

UPDATE 2: I realize that this doesn't provide any resolution to the question, "In the state of California, is the PI or the institution an employer of lab workers, for the purposes of labor law?" That's too bad. If the law changed to place the criminal/civil onus on the PI, I think academic laboratory safety would change for the better (with a raft of negative unintended consequences, of course.)

UPDATE 3: UCLA's statement, including that of Professor Harran:
..."No words can express the sympathy I have for Sheri’s loved ones. As a father myself, I cannot imagine the pain they have and will continue to endure," Harran told the court. "What happened to Sheri in my laboratory was absolutely horrible — and she was too young, too talented and had too bright a future for anyone to accept it … I can only hope that, if not today, perhaps someday they can accept my deepest condolences and sympathies for their loss." 
Under the terms of the agreement, Harran will perform 800 hours of community service to UCLA Health Sciences over the next five years. He will also speak to incoming UCLA students majoring in chemistry or biological sciences about the importance of lab safety and will design and teach an organic chemistry preparatory course each summer for the South Central Scholars, a volunteer organization that works to motivate inner-city high school students to attend college...
 Interesting how this reflects some of what Janet Stemwedel suggested a while back.

UPDATE 4: Here's a copy of the legal agreement. Two lines that I find telling:
1. For purposes of this Deferred Prosecution Agreement only, Defendant Harran acknowledges and accepts responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated on December 29, 2008, as set forth above.  
2. Neither Defendant Harran, nor any of his counsel or representatives, will make any public statement denying responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated on December 29, 2008.
Also, the South Central Scholars commitment is pretty bulky.

UPDATE 5: I should note my condolences to the friends and family of Sheri Sangji -- this must be a really hard day/week for them.

UPDATE 6: From the Toronto Star, comment from the Sangji family:
Sangji’s family was deeply disappointed with the deal. 
“We do appreciate that he’s serving some punishment, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Naveen Sangji, Sheri’s sister, told the Star after leaving the courtroom. The judge doubled Harran’s community service hours at the family’s request, she said. 
In court, Sangji said that “this settlement, like the previous one with UCLA, is barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual . . . We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory, and supervising students and researchers. We can only hope that other young individuals are better protected in the future.”
UPDATE 7: Via Beryl Lieff Benderly at Science Careers, the official statement from the Sangji family:
Sangji’s family isn’t happy with the settlement. “Our family has been devastated by the loss of a daughter and a sister,” they said in a statement. “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. … We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory, and supervising students and researchers.”
UPDATE 8: Here's C&EN's full story on the case, including this section:
Before the judge ruled on the agreement today, he allowed Sangji’s family and friends, including her sister Naveen, to speak. Naveen spoke about her sister’s life, her aspirations, what she meant to those who know her, and the deep pain caused by her death. She asked the judge to reject the agreement and proceed to trial because she and her family feel the agreement terms were inadequate punishment for Harran. Deputy District Attorney Hum said after the hearing that he understands the family’s position, but defended the agreement, calling it a fair resolution given the circumstances of the case.
Here's the full written statement from the Sangji family (written by Naveen.)

UPDATE 9: Here's Jyllian Kemsley's timeline/article round-up. 

44 comments:

  1. I don't know if if it's appropriate, but there it is. 800 hours is a little more than three months work, so the loss in pay is nonnegligible; even 160 hours a year is still four weeks/year. I wonder what they'll have him do. Working for California's version of OSHA would be appropriate, and he might be able to help a little. Having him work with burned people would be harsh and emotionally satisfying, but I don't know whether it would help with other safety issues or just keep him away from lab.

    It would have been kind of harsh but appropriate if he had to pay for Ms. Sangji's care or some significant percentage of it (50%?).

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  2. 800 hours is 20 weeks of work, working full time. And a 5-year-long parole of sorts. But still, it is preferable to a criminal trial.

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  3. Bring the MoviesJune 20, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    I'm sure his lab will be perfectly productive without him.....

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  4. It is hard to make reasonable generalizations from very rare events. As a former academic lab PI, and presently still a teacher and clinician in a medical school, I know that his modus operandi for laboratory supervision was not out of line with the standard practices that have been followed for generations and which still are followed in many quarters. That does not mean that the old standards are right. But it does mean that he became the unlucky fall guy to bear the brunt for what many others were doing (And I am mindful of the fact that his unfortunate laboratory worker, Ms. Sangji, fared much worse). Matthew 18:7 comes to mind: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!" My personal style of lab supervision was actually quite atypical. I actually inspected all the set-ups and conditions for anything done in my lab and made sure that everyone was actually doing it the right way. For dangerous experiments I was almost always in the room or just a room away. But I ran a very small shop. Indeed, it often seemed to me that perhaps I was being foolishly obsessive. I probably could have been more productive had I done otherwise. I suppose I can console myself for no more than modest productivity by telling myself that at least I never had an outcome like Haran's. In fact, I don't think I had a minor incident such as a slip and fall in about 20 years (which is all my fundability lasted). But it is extremely unlikely that I would have had a problem such as occurred in Haran's lab had I not spent so much time checking things. So the chances are that I might have been a more productive investigator if I let people do more on their own. I'll never know. In any case, I agree that academic lab safety should be improved but disagree with the idea of holding the PI's ultimately responsible. Though all PI's (and all lab employees) should have a good grasp of safety regulations, these are often arcane and difficult to understand in detail. To place the burden on individual PI's would lead to lower productivity and probably would add little to safety. It would be like expecting the PI to be his or hers own lawyer and accept all the responsible for ramifications of the arcane wording of contracts signed rather than running them through legal and getting expert opinions. The university, which--after all--employees the PI's as well as all the employees in the labs (generally)--should have the ultimate responsibility and via regular inspections the university should insure compliance. A large university can have a staff of many experts on multiple aspects of safety. It would be impossible for a single PI to have that expertise and it would be impossible for an individual PI to have the funds to employ his or her own safety department. Only if the PI flouts the directives of the university or interferes with the implementation of university approved safety protocols would I place the blame on the PI. I would also blame the PI if the PI refuses to cooperate with the university safety people by failing to carefully explain to them exactly what is going on the laboratory. But in complicated situations safety could be better insured by a staff for whom figuring out how to keep labs safe is a full time job. Overall, I think that the outcome of this case is just, though I understand why the Sangji family is unhappy with it. But I think it does as much to promote better laboratory safety at universities as would a more severe punishment. The promotion of greater safety is the only good that can come of this. The punishment of Professor Haran is not a good in itself and, in particular, even the most severe punishment would have no power to bring Sheri Sangji back to life.

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    1. " As a former academic lab PI"..."disagree with the idea of holding the PI's ultimately responsible."..There is still something as proper leadership, a trait many PI's seem to lack.

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    2. @ Dr. Steve - It seems like you don't have a full grasp on what it means to have responsibility for health & safety. We all have responsibility for our health and safety and for those around us therefore it simply isn't good enough to just trace everything up the line till you run our of road and lay it all there. If you drop the ball in your patch, you have to take some of the blame, that is what it is to be a leader.

      Here is what I would consider the basic minimum:

      Students and experimental staff, must take responsibility for ensuring that they are carrying out their work in a safe manner and that they do not endanger others. Risk assessments really help here. They must raise any concerns about health and safety through the appropriate channels.

      PI's must, as leaders and managers, take responsibility for the safety of their students and direct reporting staff by ensuring that any required procedures are followed, that students and staff are suitably trained and competent and that they themselves are personally satisfied with the arrangements in the lab including risk assessments (which they should ideally be signing off). The must investigate any concerns about health and safety raised to them and record their findings in such a way that they are able to be disseminated across the department.

      The university or department should ensure that procedures are in place to ensure safe operation of research labs, that management accountability is clear and visible, that systems are put in place that ensure regular audits are carried out for compliance and that anyone in the organisation can raise a concern regarding health and safety and have his taken serious and investigated in a constructive manner. This should ensure a culture of continued learning and improvement.

      This is what my organisation, a major multi-national corporate, expects, as a minimum from its staff and managers. The pressures on productivity within industry are at least as intense as that faced by academic staff, so I simply cannot accept, in any way, that somehow, living up to your basic responsibilities on health and safety, will stop you being productive.

      At the end of the day its really as simple as this. None of us go to work with the intention of hurting or killing anyone and we (mostly) would never want to. Surely it is only reasonable that we do what we can to ensure that we don't end the day with the serious injury or death of a colleague on our conscience?

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  5. Unstable IsotopeJune 20, 2014 at 6:54 PM

    It doesn't really feel like justice but perhaps it's the best they could get. I think it would have been hard to get a conviction. I hope that something good can come out of this - perhaps this community service will help others.

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    1. I think the academic chemistry community could design a better set of community service requirements. The most influence he could have (and I am not discounting the potential power of SCS) is on his peers in organic chemistry. It could have been any of them.

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    2. Unstable IsotopeJune 20, 2014 at 8:48 PM

      I agree

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    3. Possibly, but CJ, haven't you been annoyed at times when UCLA has held itself up as a lab safety leader? Perhaps the DA has had the same reaction and didn't want to risk Harran being held up as a leader. Certainly the prohibition on using teaching to fulfill his hospital volunteer hours seems designed to prevent him from getting professional benefit out of the exercise.

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  6. This is a relief. I dread what would happen to academia's productivity if precedent was established such that the PI is legally responsible in these sorts of cases.

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    1. Not much, as long as the post-docs and PhDs keep working.

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    2. Yes, it's absolutely impossible to keep up productivity whilst caring about health and safety. That's why we don't bother within it in industry...

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  7. "We do not understand how this man is allowed to continue running a laboratory, and supervising students and researchers.”

    does the family really think another professor in harran's place would have prevented this? probably a very small percentage of profs micromanage to the point of coaching new students through every dangerous procedure. they seem to be out for blood, but this is a cultural problem. harran wasn't a rogue PI

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    1. For what it is worth, if it were 1) my sister and 2) I thought that someone had killed her out of negligence, then yeah, I would be "out for blood."

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    2. That's a really odd way of looking at the statement from the family. Surely they are expressing their frustration about the entire culture here, not just gunning for one particular person?

      It seems that most academics want to live in a world where they get all the benefits of having staff to work for them, but none of the responsibility for having staff to work for them. That's why it suits them to have research students sit in a grey area between client and employee. My view is that, regardless of what you 'have' to do by law or management protocol, you as a supervisor of someone have a moral duty to ensure that that person is competent to carry out the task assigned in a way that means they won't hurt themselves or others. This isn't micro-management it is being a compassionate human being in a position of responsibility.

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  8. Guess I'll be the bad guy here. I'm sorry, but you can't legislate (or prosecute) the abolition of being careless or stupid. I knew better than to work in the chemistry lab without personal protective equipment in the seventh grade.

    It's a matter of being responsible. Staff and faculty observing such careless disregard of safety should immediately can the person(s) failing to wear PPE. I remember my summer at duPont Experimental Station right after high school - safety wasn't a choice and the habits are still with me 45 years later.

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  9. It's just silly to think that Harran's case is somehow special. I've been around academic labs for a better part of two decades and everywhere the story is the same - PI's and departments do not care about safety, and people get hurt or killed.

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    1. In my own experience, all issues related to safety where delegated to the senior lab technician. If anything was neglected, this person was responsible, not the PI in charge of the lab.

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    2. You can delegate responsibility, but you can't delegate accountability.

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    3. Sure you can - just look at how UCLA paid it's way out of this lawsuit.

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  10. Is there a generally lax safety culture in US academia? I ask because I'm in the UK and when I went to work over there, I was genuinely stunned at how little people cared about working safely.

    No lab glasses, no coats, no gloves, no risk assessments. Eating and drinking in the lab was fine (there was even a lab fridge filled with beer and cider). The professor deemed disposable gloves too expensive and so he banned their use! He had no clue, would be in the lab with no PPE standing next to a raging solvent still just sipping on his coffee......

    Was I just somewhere particularly bad?

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    1. Huh, great question. (Just to be clear, the beer fridge lab was in the US?)

      Yeah, US academic chemistry laboratories have a very broad range of safety awareness. Even post-Sangji, I'd say I routinely see practice that I find less than top-notch. But it's a big country and there are a lot of labs.

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    2. Haha, yes the fridge was in the US along with the instruction from the PI to have a few cold ones if you're working late. The guy is in his 70's so maybe he's just from a different time.

      Our safety folks are incredibly anal here in the UK, sometimes irritatingly so but you have to take a step back and realise that they're like that for a very good reason.

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    3. to stay employed

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    4. I worked (very briefly) in a safety-obsessed lab in the UK. The infatuation with safety was to make it seem like you were doing something when actually the lab was putting out no useful work...

      Before that, I worked with a safety-lax lab in the US. It really does depend on how much the PI cares about student safety. Not much, in this case. Eating/drinking in the lab, sandals, short shorts, occasional trouserless male workers(?!), utterly disgusting conditions in certain areas.

      My current lab (in the US) is a fair medium. And I don't have to see guys in their pants. It's the same department, but there's a very different safety culture. PI will come in and lay down the law where a safety issue is seen - generally doesn't happen, as we understand expectations beforehand.

      As stereotypes go, this one seems to be true, but not to the extent of there being a huge difference.

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  11. By definition the solvent still is contained. Nothing wrong with a a cup of coffee in the lab. Problem comes from the type of food that needs to be touched. With a coffee cup you touch the handle, not the part you are consume. Something like an apple is a totally different case. If you are worried about random things in the air landing in you coffee, you need to evaluate you lab safety, if it can land in your coffee, it can land in the lungs. If you lab is safe to breathe in, it is safe to have a cup of coffee or bottle water in.

    Beer fridge at work....what is problem here? In Croatia it is very common to have a drink with coworkers at lunch, and in some cases the Boss keeps it stocked for the group. Is this an American thing? No alcohol at work?

    Shorts in the lab...we had no AC! you try working in 40C with labcoat and pants. People just would not do the dangerous things those days, or if so, extra careful!

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    1. No alcohol at work is definitely an American thing. Everyone else can just trust themselves to be careful ;) (jk, Americans...)

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  12. Is the above a parody? :/

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  13. Harran's true punishment will be the blot on his career that will always loom large, whether it concerns getting funding or being nominated for major awards. The Sangji family - with whom I deeply sympathize - should also consider this harsh punishment that Harran will have to face his entire life. Not to mention the fact that Sangji's death will undoubtedly haunt him on a personal level.

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    1. I think the reputational damage suffered in a profession that appears to care so little about the safety of its people is probably little comfort to the family at this point.

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    2. Permanent job security to do whatever you want, even if it has no real application, and a salary of over $300,000 - a sullied reputation is small punishment when you are given this kind of compensation in life, and will continue to even you are considered the worst of the worst.

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    3. I disagree. Academics like Harran have chased prestige their whole careers. I think Harran will be paying for a long, long time. On the professional side, his name will be tethered to this tragedy forever. Anytime his name comes up, so will this incident. On the personal side, he has to live with the fact that a woman died in his lab because she was poorly trained. Unless he's a psychopath, this will never go away. Maybe some folks want to see him do jail time or give up a year's salary, but I think he will he will suffer deeply no matter what official punishment is meted out.

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    4. Sorry 6/22/2014 11:03, I actually agree with you. I was trying to reply to 6/23/2014 1:39.

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    5. I suggest you Google "$10,000 fine" to see what types of crimes society has decided justifies this degree of punishment.

      That little exercise sure changed my perspective on this matter. $10k is nothing. Absolutely nothing.

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    6. @anon256 - I absolutely agree. Such a fine is well below what one would expect if this incident had occured over here in the UK (that said, even then, the fines are considered too low).

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    7. No real reputational damage as he still gets grants. At least two this year from major funding organizations. Many profs don't care if they are seen as mean, malicious or antisocial. Heck, some don't even care about reproducibility as long as it gets them tenured!

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  14. Having woker in academia and industry in the US for the last 12 years, I have never seen a PI or a supervisor actually come into the lab to oversee a lab setup, let alone train or advise on a dangerous procedure. The expectation is that your 1 hr safety lecture during orientation and interactions with your labmates will provide you with all the safety infomation you need. Lots of emphasis is put on waste disposal, because that's mostly what institutions get fined for, but nobody cares if you know how to handle t-BuLi or how not to condense oxygen into your vacuum trap. I truly think that a lot of academic labs would be death traps if it hadn't been for a somewhat higher-than-average IQ among most grad students. I believe that universities and industrial labs have to have safety officers that independently interact with students and employees ona regular basis, going over the common techniques and reagents the students/employees use, and making sure that all the risks and precautions are fully understood. It shouldn't be up to the PIs, because as we see over and over again they fail at adressing those issues. Universities or companies might have to end up hiring many more safety officers, but that might be the only solution to dealing with constant accidents and injuries we are so used to hearing about.

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    1. Your company is different than mine. I couldn't even order t-butyl lithium without getting my boss to sign for it, which he wouldn't until I filled out the safety review forms, which then would trigger a further review because of the hazards.

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  15. Quick update: here's Paul's take on the subject:

    http://blog.chembark.com/2014/06/22/ucla-professor-patrick-harran-strikes-deal-with-prosecutors/

    Lots of food for thought there.

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  16. When I worked at ANL recently, their solution was to ban hazardous material. We couldn't even work with Na metal. You can imagine what productivity was like in that environment.

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    1. I have heard of similar issues at LANL. Including someone who was hired for proposed work, and then the the regs meant the person was not allowed to do it.

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  17. As a chemist, I find all this outrage to be misplaced. It is your own responsibility to research the safe handling procedures of compounds before you begin your experiment. Why the hell was she transferring that much t-buLi at once?

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    1. I invite you to read Jyllian Kemsley's article and find out: http://cen.acs.org/articles/87/i31/Learning-UCLA.html

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