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Science Careers Blog

March 14, 2010

Lab Fire Went Unreported by UCLA

    In my May 2009 Taken for Granted column, I wrote about the laboratory fire in a UCLA laboratory in December 2008 that caused the death of UCLA technician Sheri Sangji. On Friday, Cal/OSHA, California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, released records related to a fire that occurred in another UCLA lab more than a year before the Sangji incident.
 
The university did not report the November 2007 event to state authorities, even though the graduate student employee involved in the fire sustained injuries serious enough to require admission to a burn unit, followed by a week in a hospital. The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety learned of the incident "while they were investigating other issues at the campus," lab safety expert Neal Langerman tells Science Careers in an interview. Last week, the agency fined the university $23,900 for violations related to the earlier fire, according to a news report.

    Unlike the Sangji incident, which involved a "high risk" pyrophoric material, the November 2007 fire began when during a "low risk" operation when a "simple flammable liquid, ethyl alcohol" spilled onto the student's hands and clothing and was ignited by a Bunsen burner, Langerman says.  Like Sangji, the student wore a synthetic shirt and no protective lab coat.

    Also unlike the fire that injured Sangji, the earlier one "was put out locally" without the involvement of emergency services, Langerman says, and the victim made his own way to the university health service. A burn unit admitted him the following day.  "The university has a regulatory obligation to report promptly all hospitalizations," Langerman says, adding, "Cal/OSHA considers failure to report as serious as a willful violation."

    Cal/OSHA has levied additional fines of $67,720 fines on UCLA for violations alleged to have occurred since Sangji's death. The university announced on Friday that it intends to fight those citations.

    After determining that inadequate training and failure to use protective clothing contributed to Sangji's injuries, Cal/OSHA cited and fined UCLA.  Since then, the university has made significant changes to its lab safety practices, including providing lab coats.  Whether reporting the 2007 incident might have changed the outcome for Sangji must remain forever in the realm of surmise, but it's likely, Langerman notes, that lab coats could have reduced the damage in both incidents. 

    Nor is it known whether the revelations about the 2007 fire "will affect the deliberations of the LA district attorney office" about possible criminal charges in the Sangji case, Langerman says.

    But the situation "speaks to the fact that safety in the past had no priority at UCLA," he says.  "I wish I could say that UCLA was unique in that regard, but it's not.  It really is a common feature of life at academic institutions."
 
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