Monday, July 30, 2012

UC Regents's agreement with the Los Angeles County DA

What does the UC Regents' agreement with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office on the Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji say? It's difficult to translate a 38-page agreement into a blog post, but I'm going to try to do my best:

Congrats, Chancellor Block, it worked: Starting on page 4 of the Agreement, in the "Statement of Facts" section:
In response to the events that caused the death of Ms. Sheharbano Sangji, the Regents have implemented a comprehensive training and safety compliance program at UCLA. Among these corrective and remedial measures taken, UCLA’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety (“EH&S”) has produced a safety video setting forth the safe and compliant workplace practices in the handling and transfer of pyrophorics, including tert-Butyllithium.  Standard Operating Procedures have been established and implemented for researchers working with hazardous chemical agents; personal protective equipment including fire resistant lab coats is mandatory for researchers working with pyrophorics.  The Regents have made a substantial, comprehensive, and good faith effort to bring their laboratory safety practices and procedures into compliance with Title 8 and the California Code of Regulations for employee safety.
I don't really have the ability to judge whether or not this is actually an accurate set of statements, not working at UCLA. That said, this has to count as a win for UCLA.

Less than convincing: I am skeptical about this next section in the Agreement:
In consideration of the LADA’s dismissal of the criminal action against defendant 1, the Regents knowingly, voluntarily, and with the advice of counsel agree to the following terms:  
1. Acceptance of Responsibility for the Statement of Facts.  For purposes of this agreement only, the Regents acknowledge and accept responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated on December 29, 2008 as set forth above.  
2. Agreement that neither it nor any of its counsel, representatives, or executive employees who have authority to speak publicly on their behalf, will make any public statement denying responsibility for the conditions under which the laboratory was operated on December 29, 2008.   
Does this jibe with any of Gene Block's or Thomas O'Brien's (Prof. Harran's lawyer) public statements on the #SheriSangji case? Let's try a few on for size:
From UCLA: "Acknowledging UCLA’s dedication to further enhancing lab safety on its campus and beyond, the Los Angeles County District Attorney today dismissed all charges against the University of California Board of Regents – which oversees the 10-campus system – in connection with a December 2008 campus lab accident that took the life of a staff research associate, Sheri Sangji. At the same time, the district attorney is proceeding with unprecedented charges against UCLA organic chemistry Professor Patrick Harran. 
While expressing appreciation to the D.A. for recognizing UCLA’s commitment to enhancing lab safety programs, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block was also sharply critical of the decision to proceed with charges against Harran."
How about Harran's lawyer? 
"What happened in that laboratory was an accident, not a crime," O'Brien said. "While we all wish this terrible tragedy had not occurred, there is simply no reasonable explanation for this criminal prosecution — and it's been flawed from the start."
The phrasing of UCLA's statement sounds like the LA district attorney is acquiescing to them, not the other way around. In my opinion, the only place where UCLA has acknowledged anything is in this Agreement, and that's it. 

[There's a comment about our overlawyered society, and how it does not seem to allow true contrition to be shown by the leadership of an organization lest it be sued for its admissions. If Gene Block had said, "The conditions of the laboratory were our responsibility, and we share blame for Ms. Sangji's death," that would be a much more satisfying statement. It would also be Exhibit A in a lawsuit -- therefore, we will never get it. It's always about money, isn't it?] 

[I'm no safety professional, but I swear, if I were the judge, I'd fine the lawyers $1,000 every time they used the word "accident" to describe what happened to Sheri Sangji. IMO, it's a classic attempt to influence a jury pool. Accidents happen in toddler's pants, incidents happen in laboratories.] 

A scholarship?: 
3. The Regents agree to establish a “Sheharbano Sangji Scholarship” at the University of California, Berkeley Law (Boalt Hall) for the study of Environmental Law.  The scholarship shall be endowed in the amount of $500,000.00.  
I'm less than impressed by this, but I assume that this was done with the agreement of the Sangji family. There will have to be an attempt to memorialize Ms. Sangji at Boalt Hall; otherwise, her story will be forgotten there. A scholarship or memorial in the lobby of the UCLA chemistry department would be seem to be more appropriate (perhaps there is one that I don't know about?) 

The EH&S section: "Appendix A" is HUGE, and for good reason -- it's an attempt by a prosecutor's office to regulate an entire system of academic research laboratories. In my opinion, it's exhaustive, and demonstrates both the best and the worst about the American legal system:
  • The LADA and Cal/OSHA Bureau of Investigations will receive a list of "all laboratory facilities currently in operation"; final list at UCLA within 180 days of the agreement. The rest of the UC campuses have one year to come up with this list. 
  • Each campus will have its own Chemical Hygiene Plan and Laboratory Safety Manual (LSM) (should have already?) Each lab should have the LSM in a visible spot. 
  • Within 60 days, every UCLA PI (and every UC PI? (but not within the same deadline?) will have to complete a Laboratory Safety Training program. Training taken after 1/1/2010 counts for this section. 
  • All PIs (UCLA and UC system) cannot start laboratory operatins unless they've completed the Laboratory Safety Training program. 
  • All "existing laboratory personnel" (UCLA/UC system) will have to complete Laboratory Safety Training within 60 days of the agreement. 
  • "SOPs" are coming to the UC system: "UCLA and Regents shall ensure that all laboratory facilities comply with Title 8’s requirements for Standard Operating Procedures (“SOPs”).  Additionally, for any chemical listed in the Chemical Classification List (attached hereto as “Exhibit 1”), the following shall apply: SOPs shall be written by laboratory personnel having the most experience and knowledge and who are routinely involved in the experimental  process...." See the following post on the blog. 
  • Pyrophorics: "Researchers (including Principal Investigators) or other laboratory personnel shall not work alone when handling pyrophoric liquid reagents." There's going to have to be a Lab Buddy sticker on every bottle of tBuLi from now on, I'm guessing. 
  • A monster PPE section: UCLA only. 
    • PIs are required to do independent lab assessments of PPE requirements, including "Full-length pants, or equivalent, and close-toed shoes must be worn at all times by all individuals that who are occupying the laboratory area.  The area of skin between the shoe and ankle should not be exposed.", 
    • Appropriate protective gloves, flame-resistant laboratory coats, appropriate segregation of lab coats and keeping them inside labs. 
    • Laundry services (!) for the lab coats, and bar from lab personnel taking lab coats home to be washed. (!) 
    • ANSI-approved eyewear. 
    • "Employees shall not bear the cost of any required PPE. Written records shall be maintained by each laboratory verifying the date of issuance and type of PPE issued, or re-issued, to each laboratory personnel." 
  • No PPE? Get out of the lab (UCLA only):
No person shall be permitted to work in or occupy any laboratory area without first being provided the required Personal Protective Equipment.  The Principal Investigator or EH&S personnel, shall remove any person found by the Principal Investigator or EH&S personnel, working in or occupying any laboratory area without the required PPE, until the required PPE is obtained and utilized.  The Principal Investigator or EH&S personnel shall complete a written record on a standardized form of any such removal, including the name of the subject removed, the time, date and location of the event, the person(s) making the removal, the specific circumstances surrounding the removal and the remedial action taken.  The records shall be maintained by the EH&S Department.   
This section is huge, in my opinion. The SOP requirement alone is going to take every UC system PI two weeks of the next year to get this done. It's going to take a major, major culture change for PIs to kick students out of lab (and record it!) every time a student is in there without the appropriate PPE. UC EH&S has an enormous task ahead of it.

I'm not sure that I can summarize this agreement, other than to say that, in some parts, it's less than satisfying. In others, the scale-up problems are huge, almost to the point of impracticality. The UC system and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office has come to this Agreement -- now it will be interesting to see them enforce it. 


  1. Aside from the pyrophoric Lab Buddy, is there anything about working odd hours, including holidays when the entire campus is 'shut down'? That and the co-workers that were neither present nor evidently communicated effectively in English stuck out to me.

    Ironic that Harran, who in his statement was so worried about safety guidelines preventing work around the clock, is now so slow about appearing in court to answer for his crimes.

  2. Unstable IsotopeJuly 30, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    I'm assuming lab hours and necessary conditions for work at night will have to be written into these operating procedures. This sounds like a tremendous amount of work for the students and PIs if these procedures don't already exist somewhere. Also who is approving the operating procedures? Is it just the PI? The safety department? A committee?

    As far as washing lab coats, it is important for certain types of materials to be washed a certain way. In general a regular wash will destroy the chemical resistant ability of the coat. UCLA will probably employ a service to do this for them, which is pretty common.

  3. Coming from a small start-up, we had to prepare SOPs, a Lab Safety Manual (for chemicals and biologics) and enforce mandatory PPE. In planning experiments, if employees were to perform experiments outside the normal working hours, we tried to have the buddy system. Honestly, it was hard. It was time consuming to set up and enforce. It required planning and forethought and being vigilant. However, once the work environment and culture is set up, maintenance of the system is easier. Sure, you can cite government guidelines and the risk of lawsuits if there were accidents as being the driving force behind this endeavor. In reality, what happened was our mindsets accepted that along with being responsible for good solid science coming out of the laboratory we were also responsible for ensuring the safety of our team within the laboratory.

    Post-docs and graduate students are future scientists who need and deserve the best-training, including safety training. No one wants a repeat of this terrible tragedy.

  4. I've been involved with my company's effort to obtain OSHA VPP status at the R&D campus where I work. We've just submitted our application, which took about 18-24 months of work by several different committees (SOPs, industrial hygiene, contingency plan, etc.). It's been a difficult, evolving process. After our visit from OSHA this fall, hopefully things will become a little more set in stone. As an R&D center, though, we will still have to continually update our standards/plans as we work with new materials and investigate new processes.

  5. The lab coat service, other PPE rules, training requirements, and SOPs have already been in effect for the last 1-2 years, at least in my department. This agreement is basically UCLA doing what we have been doing since the accident.

    1. Thanks, Anon -- it's helpful to know that. Have you seen anyone kicked out of the lab for not wearing their PPE by their PI?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20