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UCLA lab fire probe criticized

State regulators performed a shoddy investigation and let UCLA off too lightly for violations stemming from a chemistry lab fire that killed a staff research assistant, the victim’s family contends in papers filed with Cal-OSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board.

Sheri Sangji, 23, suffered severe burns over 43% of her body when an experiment with air-sensitive chemicals burst into flame Dec. 29 and ignited her clothing. Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died 18 days later.

Last month, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health concluded that Sangji was improperly trained and not wearing protective clothing. Cal-OSHA cited UCLA for one regulatory and three “serious” violations, levying fines totaling $31,875.

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UCLA paid the fines but appealed the violations and is seeking a stipulation from Cal-OSHA that it admits no fault in connection with the findings -- a legal move aimed at limiting the university’s liability.

Sangji’s family followed with its own appeal, asking the state board to upgrade all four violations to “willful” and “repeat” status -- with penalties of up to $70,000 each.

It was rejected last week, however, because only employers may appeal. So Sangji’s family has filed motions with the board to become a party to UCLA’s appeal, in hopes of making its case for harsher penalties that way. The University Professional and Technical Employees union, which represents UCLA chemistry lab workers, also has asked to participate in a yet-to-be scheduled appeal hearing.

Sangji, who had worked in Professor Patrick Harran’s organic chemistry lab for less than three months, was transferring up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air.

Harran and UCLA officials have described it as a tragic accident, saying Sangji had done the experiment before and was using appropriate methods. They also have corrected the four violations cited by Cal-OSHA, as well as nearly a dozen others noted in an internal inspection of the lab two months before the fire. Most were not fixed by the time of Sangji’s accident, records show.

“UCLA has cooperated fully with multiple independent investigations conducted in the wake of the tragic accident and is confident in the independence and comprehensive nature of those reviews,” UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton said, declining further comment.

Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer also declined to comment, saying that neither he nor the investigator on the Sangji case could discuss it because of the pending appeal.

In a June 18 letter to the head of Cal-OSHA, Naveen Sangji blasted the investigation as “absolutely inadequate” and said it “barely addressed” the factors in her sister’s death.

“The investigation does not address whether the equipment Sheri was using that day was appropriate for the experiment or whether it (hood, vacuum, inert gas) was properly functioning,” she wrote.

Sangji’s letter also alleges that the investigator ignored key information she relayed to him from her critically burned sister, including that she had made three transfers each of 50 milliliters, or about 1.7 ounces. The investigator’s report, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, put the volume of t-butyl lithium at 20 milliliters.

“Not only does this evince shoddy investigation and the investigator’s complete disregard of information provided by the family, but also is significant given that it may be illegal to transfer a volume of 50 ml of tert-butyl lithium with a syringe in the state of California; further it is not recommended by the manufacturer,” the letter stated.

The family also contends that the investigator ignored a UCLA fire marshal’s report, which quoted Harran as saying that Sangji probably was transferring 40 to 50 milliliters of the chemical and that a different method would have been preferred for that amount.

The investigator also failed to take into account UCLA fire officials’ initial concerns that the accident scene had been tampered with, Sangji’s letter says.

On the night of the fire, a deputy fire marshal had ordered Harran and his researchers to stay out of the lab, which was then locked and secured with plastic crime-scene tape, records show. But the next morning, the deputy reported, he found that some 5-gallon drums of improperly stored flammable liquids were gone, and other items had been moved around.

There also was no sign of a container of highly flammable hexane that Sheri Sangji said had spilled and fueled the flash fire that engulfed her, according to a report by Los Angeles fire officials who interviewed her shortly afterward.

When UCLA fire officials interviewed Harran on Feb. 5, he said he knew nothing about the hexane. He acknowledged asking two researchers to clean up the lab and remove the drums, but said he had no ulterior motive.

“I just wanted to get all those drums out,” he said. “It was my fault. . . . And it didn’t relate to the accident, but it just looked bad.”

The suspected tampering triggered a criminal investigation by UCLA police, who concluded in January that no crime had been committed, records show. Cal-OSHA’s Bureau of Investigation has launched its own probe, as it routinely does in death cases, to determine if there is evidence of a crime. Fryer would say only that it is ongoing.

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kim.christensen@latimes.com


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