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UCLA lab study stresses safety

Report notes gains since fatal fire but says training, oversight and accountability still need to be improved.

July 18, 2009|Kim Christensen

Six months after a flash fire fatally injured a staff research assistant, UCLA has progressed in its efforts to protect those working in 2,000 campus laboratories, but "many challenges remain," according to a safety study released Friday.

Prompted by the Jan. 16 death of Sheri Sangji, the study calls for developing a "top-down culture of safety," as well as improvements in training, accountability and oversight, laboratory design and record-keeping.

"I want to be best in class at this," Chancellor Gene Block said after reviewing the campuswide Laboratory Safety Committee's 87-page report. "In a sense, this was a wake-up call. . . . We could do better, and we will do better."

Sangji, 23, was transferring up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another Dec. 29 when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air. She suffered extensive burns and died 18 days later.

In May, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined UCLA a total of $31,875 after finding that Sangji was not trained properly and was not wearing protective clothing. Cal/OSHA is now conducting a separate probe, common in fatality cases, to determine if the Los Angeles County district attorney's office should consider criminal charges.

UCLA officials, who along with Cal/OSHA have been harshly criticized by Sangji's family for their handling of the death, say it was a tragic accident that does not warrant charges.

In response to Sangji's death, the university stepped up inspections and shortened the time to correct serious violations. Block also established the safety committee to evaluate all lab protocols and find ways to improve them.

He said Friday that he was pleased with the recommendations, which include reshaping campus culture to ensure that "safety is valued as an inextricable component" of all lab activities.

"To achieve this, improvements in the quality, frequency, availability, tracking and documentation of training are needed," the report states.

Block, who has faculty appointments in psychiatry, bio-behavioral sciences and physiological sciences, said Sangji's death was "devastating" and "a very sobering event" for all who work in campus labs.

"It has been a focal point for our need to do better," he said. "I do think this community is taking it seriously -- very seriously."

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kim.christensen@latimes.com

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