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Serious lab accident at UCLA in 2007 was not reported

A student was injured in an incident similar to one in 2008 that killed a research assistant.

March 13, 2010|By Kim Christensen

A year before a UCLA staff research assistant was fatally burned in a lab fire, a graduate student was seriously injured in a similar accident that university officials failed to report to state regulators, records released Friday show.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health this week fined UCLA $23,900 for the earlier incident, which occurred in November 2007 -- 13 months before Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji suffered burns that took her life and prompted a campuswide review of lab safety. Cal/OSHA last year fined the university $31,000 in Sangji's death.

In addition, despite sweeping safety measures announced in July, Cal/OSHA last month issued $67,700 in fines for alleged violations that have occurred since Sangji died, records show. UCLA officials said Friday that they had not yet received Cal/OSHA's citations for the November 2007 incident.

They disputed the agency's February findings on the more recent violations, the most serious of which was a "repeat serious" citation for inadequate safety training. Others were related to safety gear, the storage of chemicals and inspections, the records show.

"We intend to vigorously defend against this new round of citations because Cal/OSHA, we believe, got it wrong," Vice Chancellor Kevin Reed said.

He said the university has made across-the-board safety improvements since Sangji's death, including doubling the number of lab inspections last year, enhancing training and issuing protective equipment such as lab coats.

The lack of protective coats was a factor both in the fatal fire in 2008 and the one that occurred in 2007, Cal/OSHA found.

In the earlier incident, a grad student working as a paid researcher suffered first- and second-degree burns on his hands and chest when ethanol he was handling splashed onto his clothing and hands and was ignited by a Bunsen burner.

"On this day, the injured employee was wearing a polyester shirt over a cotton shirt," the report noted. "The polyester material melted, resulting in serious burn injuries on the employee's chest."

The injured student made it to UCLA Medical Center's emergency room under his own power and was admitted to a burn unit the next day, records show. He spent a week in the hospital. The incident came to Cal/OSHA's attention in September, when an investigator for the agency learned of it while examining UCLA records, the report noted.

Neal Langerman, a San Diego consultant and former head of the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health and Safety, said no one will ever know whether Sangji's death could have been prevented.

"One could speculate that training and supervision would have improved, and a possible outcome would be that history would have run a different path and the Sangji death would not have occurred," he said.

In any case, he said, it is "very disturbing" that UCLA failed to report the injury. "One wonders what else they haven't reported."

Reed said UCLA officials are reviewing why the injury wasn't reported to Cal/OSHA , but said that nobody "could think for a minute that we haven't taken safety issues seriously" since Sangji's death.

On Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji, 23, was severely burned over nearly half her body when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames during an experiment and set ablaze her clothing, which also was made of synthetic material and melted to her skin. She died 18 days later.

In May, Cal/OSHA found that Sangji was not trained properly and was not wearing protective clothing.

UCLA paid the fines but appealed the violations. Later it withdrew its appeal amid an outcry by Sangji's family and the union that represented her.

Reed said Friday that he suspects that Cal/OSHA's continued scrutiny of UCLA was driven by complaints by the union rather than the merits of the case. Representatives of the union, the University Professional and Technical Employees, could not be reached late Friday.

A Cal/OSHA spokesman disputed Reed's contention, however, saying the agency was focused only on the facts of the case. In addition to its civil findings, Cal/OSHA also has conducted an investigation into potential criminal charges. It has presented its findings to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which said Friday through a spokeswoman that the case remains under review.

kim.christensen @latimes.com

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