LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A young chemist fatally burned in a UCLA laboratory was inadequately trained, lacked experience and was not given protective gear before handling highly flammable chemicals, an expert witness testified Tuesday.
Neal Langerman, a chemist with a consulting practice in advanced chemical safety, was called by the prosecution in a preliminary hearing that will determine whether chemistry professor Patrick Harran will stand trial for violating California occupational health and safety codes in the death of Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji.
Under questioning by Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Marguerite Rizzo, Langerman said Sangji should not have been handling the chemical tert-Butyllithium without specific training and study of instructions provided by its manufacturer. He said the chemical is highly flammable if it comes in contact with oxygen.
Asked about Sangji's background, Langerman said, “She absolutely did not have sufficient skill, knowledge or training to be handling tert-Butyllithium.”
He said the 23-year-old, who had a bachelor's degree in chemistry, never worked with the chemical until she came to UCLA. Equipment in the lab was inadequate and technicians were not provided with protective clothing, he said, and
In addition, Sangji made errors in procedure, Langerman said, adding that the accident was predictable and preventable.
“When you ask an untrained person to deal with a high-risk task, something bad is going to happen,” he said.
Cross-examination was delayed until Dec. 18 due to schedule conflicts.
Outside court, Kevin Reed, an attorney for UCLA who is observing the case, said: “The fundamental thing is this was a terrible tragedy. Dr. Langerman's testimony has not done anything to convert what was a tragedy into a crime.”
Sangji was transferring a chemical from one sealed container to another on Dec. 29, 2008, when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands and the chemical spilled, igniting on contact with the air.
Sangji's synthetic sweater melted into her skin and she suffered burns over nearly half her body. She died 18 days after the incident.
Harran is accused of failing to provide safety instructions and equipment for his lab researchers. He is charged with willful violation of occupational safety and health standards causing the death of an employee, and could be sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted.
Since Sangji's death, UCLA has instituted more rigorous lab inspections, issued more fire-resistant lab coats, offered enhanced training in the use of air-sensitive chemicals and established a Center for Lab Safety.